The Acton MBA In Entrepreneurship Could Change Your Life

Jeff Sandefer. Courtesy photo

Acton co-founder Jeff Sandefer. Courtesy photo


John Porter (Acton MBA 2015) recalls covering some 300 cases during his time at Acton. He woke up at 4 a.m. each day, arrived at Acton by 5 a.m. for a 6 a.m. study group, and attended class from 8 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. After that it was case study preparation until midnight. He subsisted on four to five hours of sleep each night and reserved 15 minutes to catch up with his wife in the evenings. He’d take Thursday nights off, but weekends were reserved for study. “People don’t get that it’s a really hard program,” Porter says. “When you tell them I studied till midnight and got up a 4 a.m. to finish something, they don’t always understand.”

Porter is referring to Acton’s grueling second semester, where 100-hour work weeks are the norm. It’s prefaced by a five-month pre-matriculation period that is completed online and covers courses such as Operations 1, Cash and Valuation 1, and Customers 1. Students then come to campus for the business boot camp that Porter describes.


Sandefer wanted to impart more than business skills through his MBA program. He says his best and brightest students at the University of Texas often came back from top firms after five years and “hated their lives.” With Acton, he aimed to go beyond lining students up for six-figure salaries. “We’re not about finding a job at all. We’re about finding a calling, and that is really different,” he says. “It’s what you’re put here on Earth to do, and so it’s really about changing the way you think about yourself.”

This plays out in Acton’s Life of Meaning course, which comprises 20% of the curriculum. It’s business ethics on steroids. Students are forced to make tough choices in case-study scenarios with no right or wrong answers, such as whether they’d cut corners on safety regulations in a production facility or reduce employee pay to minimum wage. While the answers may seem obvious at first, new challenges are piled on until the students find themselves reversing their original stance. These individual exercises build up to larger existential questions, such as: Did I do meaningful work? What gives me peace and meaning?

For Porter, this was the most important portion of the coursework. Rather than cheesy self-help scenarios, he found the cases pressed him to examine his values on a fundamental level. He could try on different moral hats without the real-world ramifications and draw moral lines in the sand before circumstances drew them for him. He also came to appreciate how these values would ultimately shape his future business. “If you found a company, your DNA is written all over it,” Porter says. “Who you are bleeds out in your work.”


Acton may help students recalibrate their moral compasses, but the program does not promise a job. There is no career services department, and that’s on purpose, Sandefer says. “We didn’t want employers coming here looking for cannon fodder for their lower ranks,” he says. “We have plenty of friends at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey — and I’m not knocking that — but it is a model where you bring in lots of very young, bright people and work them very hard, and a few make it to the top. We’d rather equip people to find their calling and go directly out into working in a real business or running a real business and skip that step.”

For some, this is problematic. In a program where students have little spare time to start a company during school, a stepping-stone job is often necessary after graduation. Robin Bruce, Acton’s CEO, estimates between 60% and 70% of students take a job immediately after graduation, with the remainder starting their own companies. Among all alumni, 63% have founded companies, she says, taking an average of two years to so do. All of this is to say that most graduates, even those who eventually start a business, need a job immediately after they leave Acton. And most find one, Bruce says, estimating that two-thirds are employed within three months of graduation, with most of the final third landing a job six months later and only a few failing to find a job beyond that.


But the job search can be complicated. In a field where students splash out six figures for a credential with cache, an unknown degree can be a tough sell. Evan Van Ness, a 2012 Acton MBA, wrote a blog post in which he explains that attending Acton hurt his chances of finding a job because so few people had heard of the program. “I hope you’re ready to do lots of explaining about what Acton is. And as they say in politics: When you are explaining, you are losing,” Van Ness writes. One employer assumed he attended Acton because he couldn’t get into McCombs — never mind that his GMAT score was 30 or 40 points higher than the average Harvard or Stanford MBA, and his grades at Rice were excellent. “I hate putting my test scores on a résumé, but because I went to Acton, I feel like I have to,” he says.

Van Ness is not alone. Many Acton graduates include an explanatory note about the program on their LinkedIn profiles. Youngblood details the double sell required to secure employment: You must first sell the degree, he says, and then sell yourself as the best candidate for the job.

But Youngblood was less concerned about the degree’s cache than about the absence of a robust alumni network — an often-touted selling point for top-tier MBA programs and a source of funding for entrepreneurship students. “There is no hiding it: McCombs is pumping out several hundred students every year. Acton’s pool of graduates from all years is several hundred,” he explains. But he doesn’t fault Acton for this. “They were very up front with that throughout recruitment,” he says.

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