MBA: The Fortune Elite’s Preferred Degree

by John A. Byrne on Print Print

Indra K. Nooyi

When PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi was an MBA student at Yale's School of Management she was "totally and completely broke."

If your ambition is to one day become the chief executive officer of a Fortune 100 company, you’d be wise to get an MBA degree—and get it from the most highly rated business school that will accept you.

That’s the inevitable conclusion from looking at the educational backgrounds of the CEOs of Fortune’s newest list of the top 100 companies released today (May 5). Some 42 of the 100 chieftains have MBAs or master’s degrees in either finance or economics. More tellingly, perhaps, 31 of them got their graduate degrees from top 25 business schools—and most of them got their MBA tickets punched in the 1970s and early 1980s before the big boom in graduate business education. (Also see Fortune 100 CEOs: When They Were MBA Students.) Interestingly, four of the six women CEOs in the Fortune 100 have MBA degrees.

Sure, there are plenty of people who rose to the top of their organizations with only a bachelor’s degree. And there’s even a famous few in the tech business who dropped out altogether, including Apple’s Steve Jobs, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and Michael Dell. Even Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer is a dropout of sorts. He quit Stanford University’s MBA program in 1980 to join Microsoft, though he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a B.A. in math and economics.

By and large, however, the credential of choice among Fortune’s corporate elite is the elite MBA degree. CEOs with master’s in business outnumber the lawyers (the second most popular degree with nine chieftains claiming J.D.s) by nearly five-to-one.

Harvard Business School upholds its reputation as the Cathedral of Capitalism. Its alums, from General Electric’s Jeff Immelt and J.P. Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, who also happened to be classmates together in Harvard’s Class of 1982, lead eight of the Fortune 100 companies, more than any other business school. There’s Boeing’s Jim McNerney, who was in the Class of 1975, with none other than George W. Bush. And there’s Charles Halderman of Freddie Mac and Steven Kandarian of MetLife, who in 1978 called his father at work to tell him he had been admitted to Harvard. All together, Harvard’s eight Fortune 100 chieftains employ more than one million people and run companies with a total market capitalization of $550 billion, a sum that exceeds the gross domestic product (GDP) of Switzerland.

Columbia Business School comes next with half as many Fortune 100 CEOs: four, including Citigroup’s Vikram Pandit, Morgan Stanley’s James Gorman, and Lockheed Martin’s Robert Stevens.

Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and Cornell’s Johnson School of Business each have a trio of CEOs in the Fortune 100. Kellogg counts Target’s Gregg Steinhafel, DuPont’s Ellen Kullman, and Allstate’s Thomas Wilson. Cornell is well represented by Kraft Foods’ Irene Rosenfeld, Aetna’s Mark Bertolini, and SprintNextel’s Daniel Hesse.

Stanford Graduate School of Business can lay claim to two Fortune 100 chieftains with MBAs, surprisingly neither of them in the tech business: Abbott Laboratories’ Miles White and Time Warner’s Jeffrey Bewkes.

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  • Mike Jones

    Lowell McAdam graduated from Cornell as an undergrad, not MBA.

  • raj

    Ford CEO has a management degree (S.M. / Sloan Fellow) and Pepsi CEO has business degree from India and a master’s from Yale.

  • lulz

    Dan Hesse was a Sloan Fellow

  • JC

    So 92% of the Fortune 100 CEOs don’t have a Harvard MBA.

    The studies all show that the percentage of top CEOs who went Harvard for undergrad or MBA is dropping every year.

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