Inside Harvard Business School’s Startup Machine

Harvard Business School Rock Center for Entrepreneurship - Ethan Baron photo

Harvard Business School Rock Center for Entrepreneurship – Ethan Baron photo

In recent years, Harvard Business School – and the Rock Center For Entrepreneurship, in particular – have become a destination for aspiring entrepreneurs. What do you attribute your success to?

Eisenmann: I’d point to at least three things that are important in the success that we’ve had and in attracting students interested in entrepreneurship…It isn’t for everyone. We collectively spend a lot of time making sure that students who are drawn to entrepreneurship know what they are getting into. It’s hard. And it ends in failure for a lot. So it’s really important that students think through their values and motivations. I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that.

An example of that is our required FIELD course in the first year. In the third (and final) module, all 900 students in the first year class will conceive and launch a business in small teams. Some of them will do that and hate it. And many of them will do it and say, ‘Hey, I think this is really cool. We started with nothing but an idea and at the other end we have a real business here with real customers. And we’re selling a product that people really like.’ And that happens early enough in their career here in the MBA program to spend their summer and the second year of their MBA program taking their business to the next level, exploring another one, or thinking about joining a startup.

[Along with] that FIELD course, which is now in its fifth year, we’ve had a required first year case-based course on entrepreneurship that all students have been taking for fifteen years. Both of those core classroom experiences give students early exposure, particularly people who may not have been drawn to entrepreneurship. Because of our scale – and the interests of our student and faculty – we have an unusually rich number of second year electives. If you’re interested, we have advanced courses that will challenge you, build your skills, and give you some new ideas.

The classroom, both in the first and second years, is a big part of the program. The Rock Center (and the extracurricular programming that Rock does) is best of breed. We’ve got the usual lineup of programs that you see at a lot of schools. And we’ve been doing it for a long time. They’re all exceptionally well-designed and executed. So that helps.

The third thing is Harvard’s Innovation Lab. It’s five years old. And it has done a great job of connecting Harvard Business School MBAs to peers from other graduate schools and from our undergraduate program (including the engineering programs). And that boosts the scale of entrepreneurship, but also gets students mixing with classmates who bring different perspectives and new ideas.

And the last thing I’d say is success breeds success. We’ve had years and years of Harvard MBAs launching businesses. And those folks, especially through the case method, come back as case protagonists. Students can look at those alums and say, ‘Wow! They did it while they were here. We can do it too.’ Beyond that, [if you look at] internships, a lot of HBS students will end up interning in these startups run by recent grads. Again, it just makes it that much easier to keep things going. It works very well for us in particular because of the case method.

Gernon: We really leverage that alumni network extensively throughout all of our Rock programming, whether they’re mentors or entrepreneurs-in-residence. We have 19 entrepreneurs-in-residence, all of whom have started companies and are either on their next startup or investing in new companies. They understand what investors are looking for. And they’re utilized 100% of the time when they’re here. They come in for office hours. They’re very reputable entrepreneurs who are involved and really lend credibility and inspire the students quite a bit.

Another advantage that Harvard Business School has is its renowned faculty (and a larger number of faculty in the area of entrepreneurship). Could you speak to that? 

Eisenmann: I think that’s right. Every school is organized somewhat differently. HBS is organized into 10 academic units for faculty organization. [It’s] just what you’d expect – marketing, strategy, organizational behavior and so forth. One of those ten is entrepreneurial management. The faculty who study entrepreneurship in other schools might be nested into one of the different areas depending on how the school is organized. There might be a management unit or a technology, innovation and entrepreneurship unit. Some folks might be scattered across strategy and organizational behavior. To have a group of faculty – and I believe we are the second largest unit of the school after finance – is different.

We’re running a seminar where our own faculty and visitors from other schools are also sharing leading edge ideas. We’re building courses and are responsible for staffing those courses. This unit is probably 20 years old at the school (and we’ve had a long tradition before that of professors who specialized in and had strong interest [in entrepreneurship]. To have our group raise it to the level of an organizational unit on par with marketing and finance really means you have a lot of people thinking hard about entrepreneurship and doing leading edge research and course development.

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