Are you crazy?! You say you want to be an entrepreneur? You don’t need the MBA degree for that! Or do you …? At least for this post, let’s assume you do.
NOTE: Personally, I did find my MBA experience to be the wellspring of discovery, opportunity, networking and self-confidence that I would have struggled to find in another setting. The education is valuable, your classmates are inspiring and, perhaps most importantly, that “.edu” email address is one of the most effective means of convincing a VIP to chat with you over coffee. It was the right call for me, it may or may not be for you. But let’s assume it is.
As a budding entrepreneur exploring business school options — or really any degree at an institution of higher education — here are some key questions to ask of schools to which you are considering applying. These questions will help you separate the wheat from the chaff, and you could be surprised to discover that schools that are the best fit for your needs may not be ranked by U.S. News at the top of the list. Just as the MBA experience is for some and not for others, any of the Top 100 business schools has the potential to be a great or terrible fit for you depending on your goals and needs.
1) What is the quality and range of the startup ecosystem in the city / region of the MBA program?
Are there major companies such as Google, investors such as First Round Capital and/or events such as SXSW? Are the prominent startups in the community relevant to the industry you are targeting?
E.g., New York is a great place to pursue a “FinTech” startup; Washington, DC is a great place to pursue an “EdTech” startup; just about any city in Texas is a great location to pursue an energy startup; and the Silicon Valley / San Francisco Bay Area is a great locale to pursue just about any startup.)
2) Who are the top entrepreneurs and companies among the MBA alumni?
Past 40 years? 10 years? Past 5 years? Any famous entrepreneurs who are alumni of other programs on the campus? It is important to know who the prestigious, influential and/or successful alumni are. Not only does a powerful alumni base hint that there may be “something in the water,” but you will want to call upon these people for mentoring, introductions, or even investment. (You can find some of this information on AngelList’s “colleges” section, but is important to poll schools directly as well. For example, the venture capitalist Bill Gurley is one of the most famous graduates of my alma mater, The University of Texas’ McCombs MBA program, yet he does not have a profile on AngelList.)
3) How easy is it to get in touch with top “founderati” among the alumni?
Is there a web portal for discovering and messaging the alumni? How often do they return to campus? Do students routinely meet with them?
4) Is the MBA program and the greater university on the radars of VC firms and top accelerators?
Do top VCs and startup accelerators actively comb the campus looking for startups to back? Do they view a degree from a given MBA program as a significant factor in determining the quality of a team?
5) Is there a student startup accelerator on campus or a VC fund investing in students’ startups?
Are these managed by students? Are there opportunities to join independent VC funds of this sort such as Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures?
6) What is the nature of the“startup culture” on campus?
Is there even a startup culture at all? Is the “startup geek” label a badge of honor on campus or is it a pejorative term? What percentage of students in the MBA program are pursuing their own ventures and/or early-stage ventures? What is the percentage campus-wide?
7) What kinds of “fast hatch” startup events take place on campus or nearby?
Does the campus or greater community feature student startup-catalyzing programs such as 3 Day Startup, Startup Weekend and/or “Major League” hackathons?
8) Are there student business plan / startup pitch competitions on campus?
Are these competitions university-wide or are they focused on MBA students? Are they open to students from other schools? What prizes — both in terms of financial and network access — are available to the winning teams? Are the teams that win still going strong, or does this competition have a history of winning teams which disband immediately after the prize money is collected? (I.e., do the competitions trend in favor of entrepreneurs or “wantrapreneurs” …?)
9) Does the school sponsor students to compete in and travel to other national business plan competitions across the country?
If so, how much funding is available? Is there a professor or administrator with a proven track record of effectively coaching student teams for competitions?
10) Are there “entrepreneurs-in-residence” (EIRs) on campus?
Who are they? How approachable are they? How connected are they? More to the point, how much can these “EIRs” help you and will they do so?
In my own experience, I was lucky to be part of a team working with the McCombs School of Business’ EIR, Brett Hurt, founder of Bazaarvoice. Brett went way beyond the call of duty to catalyze student entrepreneurship on the campus of The University of Texas, hosting fireside chats with successful founders and VCs, organizing office hours with leading founderati and accelerator scouts for the likes of Y Combinator, and generally making himself available regularly to chat with students who were pursuing startup ventures.