Wharton’s Big Push Into Startups

Warby Parker is one of the most successful startups to ever come out of Wharton

Warby Parker is one of the most successful startups to ever come out of Wharton

When the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School recently put together a list of young alumni to watch, dubbed the  “Top 40 Under 40” list, nearly half of the graduates were  entrepreneurs. Among the 18 startup founders were four Class of 2010 members who founded eyewear maker Warby Parker. The firm traces its roots to the entrepreneurship program’s Business Plan Competition (which, ironically, the founders didn’t win). The company was nurtured through a program stipend (Wharton Venture Award) and membership in its incubator (Venture Initiation Program). Fast forward five years and Warby Parker has distributed over a million pairs of glasses to people in 35 countries and created more than $200 million dollars in economic impact. In February, it was named the most innovative company of 2015 by Fast Company.

And you’ll find plenty of stories like that. Jake Schwartz, a 2008 grad who majored in entrepreneurial management and spent time in Wharton’s Venture Initiation Program, went on to be a co-founder of General Assembly, a professional development curriculum and credentialing service, that has raised nearly $50 million dollars. Davis Smith, a 2011 graduate, raised $4.4 million from Silicon Valley investors while he attended Wharton to launch Baby.com (Brazil), which has since drawn more than $50 million in investment capital and generates annual sales of $40 million plus. And Warby Parker co-founder Jeff Raider more recently launched Harry’s, which applies Warby Parker’s formula for glasses to shaving supplies.

Wharton–long known for finance and a major feeder school to Wall Street–has become something of a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity. And that partially stems from a larger movement, which promotes cross-disciplinary collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania, says Clare Leinweber, managing director of Wharton Entrepreneurship at the Wharton School. “Although many of the co-curricular programs are housed at Wharton Entrepreneurship,” she tells Poets&Quants, “they are open across all of Penn. So we actively encourage student teams across all disciplines – and graduate and undergrad as well. And that creates a very fertile environment for collaboration and for finding complementary skill sets to comprise a really effective team.”


Alas, some practitioners argue that would-be entrepreneurs would be better served learning on the street. However, Raffi Amit, the academic director of the Goergen Entrepreneurial Management program and a professor of entrepreneurship and management at Wharton, sees this view as short-sighted. “Entrepreneurship encompasses many fields in management,” he says, “whether this is leadership, managing people, marketing, financing, or strategy. All of these are skills that you learn in the entrepreneurship program…There are lots of issues associated with launching a successful business and we teach you the tools and skills to do that.”

Beyond the academics, of course, is the networking which gives MBA entrepreneurs a big edge. “The MBA gives you an incredible network of established alumni across many industries and functions,” adds Doug Baldasare (’12), founder of ChargeItSpot, in a Wharton blog post.  “I was able to leverage the alumni network to get introductions to prospective investors, customers, and employees.” And he adds a caveat that few prospective MBAs consider. “As a student launching a business, you are ‘cute and cuddly’ and can get almost any meeting with anyone.”

Recently, Poets&Quants sat down with Raffi Amit and Clare Leinweber to learn more about what Wharton offers aspiring entrepreneurs. Are entrepreneurs born or made? Has entrepreneurship hit its peak in popularity at business schools? And what should applicants look for in an entrepreneurship program?  Check out some of their surprising answers in this interview. 

Some might believe that entrepreneurship is something you’re born with. You either have it or you don’t. To what extent can you truly teach entrepreneurship?

Raphael (Raffi) Amit

Raphael (Raffi) Amit

Amit: Wharton was the very first school to launch a research center in entrepreneurship. Wharton was the first school to introduce the teaching of entrepreneurship into the MBA curriculum. And what we can teach is what we have learned from the experiences of others: What are some of the pitfalls to avoid? There is a lot of data that has been accumulated based on the experience in surveys and empirical work. So what we can teach people are the issues that relate to the formation and growth of new ventures in both independent and corporate settings. And [we can share] the different issues that came out of the research on how to maximize the probability of a successful launch and mitigate uncertainty and risk.

There’s no boilerplate that anyone can teach you [regarding entrepreneurship]. At the very heart of entrepreneurship lies the act of innovation. With that creative element and innovation, entrepreneurship really combines many disciplines (including management), as far as how to deal with people, how to manage a structural organization, and how to develop strategy. And [it includes] how you do all these things as far as assembling the resources, developing new services and products, and marketing them to your target customers. And [it covers] how do you do all these things in a way that mitigates pitfalls and risk and thereby enhances the probability of a successful outcome. We can teach you those things.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.