Poets&Quants’ Top MBA Startups Of 2017

The Front Row Education team. Sidharth Kakkar, a graduate of Northwestern’s Kellogg School is pictured left. Courtesy photo


For Sidharth Kakkar, a 2012 graduate of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, the path to a VC-backed venture was less intentional and direct. Kakkar entered Kellogg with entrepreneurship in the back of the mind and “hacked together random apps and subjected classmates to trying them out” during his first year. After a summer internship at Bain, Kakkar had more time during his second year to build more apps. “I had assumed I was eventually going to be a consultant but at some point it dawned on me that I probably was going to learn more about being an entrepreneur by being an entrepreneur rather than being a consultant,” Kakkar says.

The result is a $6.6 million-backed math platform that gamifies math problems in kindergarten through eighth grade classrooms called Front Row. Kakkar credits a flexible schedule and fellow students for the ability to start a venture. “I think the absolute most helpful part was having the freedom and flexibility to experiment, and being surrounded by a lot of really smart people who also had the breathing room to experiment with you,” Kakkar believes. “When you have a demanding job, you basically have no time – if you’re doing good work, then it fully consumes you. You just don’t have the mental energy to think about ideas, to experiment, and no cohort to talk about this stuff with.”

Clare Leinweber is the managing director of Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship. Courtesy photo


Despite schools reporting lower rates of students choosing entrepreneurship right out of the B-school gates, entrepreneurship directors see a continued growth and evolution in MBA interest in entrepreneurship.

“I don’t have any kind of sense that we are at a peak. If anything, it is growing,” Wharton’s Leinweber says, matter-of-factly.

The interest might be growing, but anecdotally, Stanford’s Whitman says the venture capital moola isn’t. Still, she says, the safe-space of B-school and non-threatening nature of a graduate student bodes will for MBAs — especially those in the startup epicenter of Silicon Valley.

“You can often get whatever meeting you want to get, whether it’s on Sand Hill Road or some place else,” Whitman boasts. “I think it helps open doors and gives you access to a whole bunch of people that can be helpful. And that’s everything from the faculty who are teaching courses to the alumni and other mentors.”

Ponzo sees it another way. “There is still plenty of money to invest,” he maintains. “Funds are still raising money. There is still money to deploy.” However, Ponzo says, the VCs that are looking to invest are doing so with an increasingly skeptical eye — often doing a more thorough vetting and evaluation process than recent years. “I think the Uber for X and Airbnb for Y model has run its course,” Ponzo says. “It’s not enough to raise money with just that kind of pitch.”

On the other hand, Ponzo believes, today’s business students are more prepared than ever to launch the ventures smart VCs are looking for. “I graduated college in 1996 and I didn’t know how to do anything,” Ponzo jokes. “I think students that graduate today know more and I certainly feel confident that students who graduate 10 years from now will be much more proficient in coding. As business students come to business school with those skills, you are going to see a new wave of businesses that really were not possible before.”

See the following pages for the Poets&Quants’ Top MBA Startups of 2017. We believe the most objective indicator of a startup’s potential is the amount of confidence angels and VC firms invest in the idea. The following list is based solely on the amount of VC-backed capital each startup has publicly announced since launching. To capture the most recent five-year window of startups coming out of MBA programs, the ventures must have a founding date between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2016. Each startup must also have a founding member that graduated with an MBA during the same time.