Teaching MBAs To Be Entrepreneurs

The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

The Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan

One way Ross instills this mindset is with the Dare to Dream program. It is a small grant program that, according to Thornhill, essentially gives students the room to fail with little consequences but high learning and growth potential. The largest grant possible is $5,000.

“They apply for a small amount of money and if they have success, they can apply for a larger amount,” Thornhill says. “If that goes well, they can again apply for a little more. If we give them a few hundred dollars, they go out and try and it goes to nothing, they can come back and start over with a different idea.”

This program allows students to take low risk and low consequence ventures outside of high-pressure investor or classroom situations. The idea is to teach and give experience without a grade or huge amount of funding on the line.


As someone who comes from the engineering world originally, Thornhill sees the value in an MBA as more than just the theoretical training of running a business. “Someone who’s a voracious reader with an internet connection can teach themselves the majority of the needed business skills,” Thornhill says. “There’s a portion of funders who don’t really care about your background, but there’s also a significant portion that does look at that background. For them, a tier one MBA is still worth something.”

But Thornhill says the most important aspect to the entrepreneurship and the MBA is the alumni network graduates become a part of. “It’s been my experience when a Ross graduate puts in a call to another UM alum, they always get a call back,” Thorhnill says. “The ability to be able to be part of this instant global network that can provide advice and connections, that’s where the value lies.”

The academic sees students benefitting more from a less secretive entrepreneurial ideology. “Ten years ago the biggest mistake students made was not telling anyone about their idea because they thought it would be stolen,” Thornhill says. “They’d spend all of this time and put in all this effort developing this one idea without telling anyone about it and when they finally took it to the customers or public, no one would want it and they would realize they just invested all of this time and energy into a bad idea.”

The lean startup movement, which puts great focus on customer feedback, has proven key to startup success. “That general approach is one we’ve embraced,” Thornhill says.


Another tactic Ross emphasizes is encouraging diversity of thought and skill sets among the founding team. “Engaging a broad perspective and having multiple backgrounds and ways of thinking on a team is key,” Thornhill says. “The teams that are same gender, same race, same technical background, how creative are they going to get? Their potential for a real breakthrough is so much smaller.

“If you ask students to come up with an idea in class, that’s (dating app) what they’ll probably come up with,” Thornhill says. “That’s not surprising. The way we teach is you are going to see ideas in your world and where you live. I used to work in tire making and so I saw all of my opportunities with tires. If you work in finance, a lot of your ideas will be in finance. Where are MBAs living? What is their world? It’s dating and socializing and going to pubs at night and playing sports. That’s their world. So they tend to see problems and opportunities where they are. Sometimes that’s why it does take a few years after graduating to come up with a good idea because you have to put yourself back into that setting where you can see more diverse opportunities other than just how you can hook up on a Friday night.”

Looking outside of those immediate ideas is what Thornhill hopes every student who attends Ross will develop.

“Entrepreneurship is about a set of behaviors,” Thornhill says. “It’s about seeing opportunities and acting on them and being open-minded enough to learn from your world and data. Anyone can develop those skills. I really think entrepreneurship will become more of a goal of higher education and go beyond just one college or school. Because it’s an essential skill whether you plan on starting a new venture or not.”