How an MBA can make you an entrepreneur

SURVEYS of this newspaper’s readers always show that a large proportion of them hope to start up their own business one day. But if that is your dream, how do you go about it? Can you learn to be an entrepreneur? There is a mystique around entrepreneurialism and those who have succeeded often promote the idea that it is a quality that you are born with and no amount of training can make you successful.

Which is odd, because in recent years MBA courses have increasingly incorporated an entrepreneurial aspect. Many have electives about starting businesses. But can you really learn entrepreneurialism? As is often pointed out, the heads of Apple, Google and Microsoft do not have MBAs. If you want to start your own business, can an MBA help you?

Gary Dushnitsky, associate professor of Strategic and International Management & Entrepreneurship at London Business School, says that an MBA course can give you the “toolkit” to start a business. When people think of entrepreneurs they tend to emphasise the brilliant idea, the light bulb moment, and while that can be important, structural factors are also part of building success. For example, setting up the business in such a way that it can be scaled up. “Successful entrepreneurship is not just about having an idea that has traction, but having an organisation that allows you to monetise the idea. Do you have a marketing department that can sell the product? A finance department that can deal with the sometimes lumpy cashflows?” Many successful entrepreneurs are those who have found a way to monetise ideas. Gyms and coffee shops existed for hundreds of years before Fitness First or Starbucks.

Dr Shai Vyakarnam, director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, agrees that there is a perception that MBAs are unhelpful to entrepreneurship. “There is a negative part of MBAs, which is that most of the curriculum is about risk mitigation,” he says, pointing out that a lot of modern finance is about reducing risk. Entrepreneurs, of course, need a high tolerance of risk, and these two seem to pull in opposite directions. But the risk removal strategies can certainly be useful if used in the right way.

Learning about spread-sheets, venture capital, marketing, these are all useful things to know and might help you not get walked all over by somebody who has been doing it for 15 or 20 years. He also says that another side to the MBA is very helpful indeed to entrepreneurs – the networking. An MBA is largely about the contacts that you make at things like venture capitalist events and especially at business schools that are embedded in other universities – Judge at Cambridge, Imperial or Said in Oxford, for example – there are lots of people floating around, engineers or scientists for example, who can help you.

Really, there is no way to predict where entrepreneurs will emerge from. If an MBA is your route, then so be it. “I am from the Frank Sinatra School of business,” says Vyakarnam. “Do it your way.”