What’s your image of an MBA student? Probably he or she would a good undergraduate degree on the resume. The person would almost certainly have five or so years of work experience. And if the student is aiming for a highly ranked school, he or she would have to score reasonably well on the GMAT or GRE.
Henry Oakes couldn’t be further from this profile. He left school at the age of 16, set up and sold a business, and then became one of the first people without an undergraduate degree to ever earn an MBA at Imperial College Business School in London.
What’s more, Oakes won a distinction in earning his MBA in 2017. And far from using his new-found skills to settle down into a safe corporate job or consulting firm, he has just launched another new start-up.
“I don’t come from a wealthy background,” Oakes tells Poets&Quants, “but I had been given a full scholarship to a private school in the West Country. I got 11 GCSEs, all As or A*. When I told my teachers that I didn’t plan on staying to do A levels and go to university there was quite a lot of shock.” The decision came down to personality, Oakes says. “Particularly when I was younger, I always quite enjoyed taking contrarian views. Being a bit different, and not wanting to swim with the crowd.”
IN A LOTTERY LINE BEHIND 65-YEAR-OLD LADIES
Of course, plenty of drop-outs have gone on to found successful businesses. Unlike Marc Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, though, Oakes didn’t have a burgeoning business ready to unleash. He moved to Brighton to be closer to family and took on part-time jobs to make ends meet. “I was struggling a little bit, to be honest, and like a lot of people in that situation I thought, ‘well, If I want to have some money, maybe I should go and play the lottery.’ I found myself in a convenience store standing in line behind about six 65-year-old ladies, holding a paper ticket and pencil.” Then inspiration struck.
“I thought: ‘This is rubbish. Why can’t I play a game that’s more engaging in a more engaging way? Why is the game itself so boring?” He quickly came up with some alternative lottery-style games (“my family has always been into board games and strategy games,” he says) and a few days later emailed his brother to see what he thought. He loved them. It was 2008. Oakes’ brother’s City trader job was looking precarious. Feeling he had nothing to lose, he quit, and the two went into business together.
Over the next eight years, the brothers’ company Geonomics raised £25m in venture capital and employed 50 people. In 2016 it was acquired by one of its investors, a publicly-listed gaming company. “It was maybe not the runaway success we hoped for, but we did launch the product all over the world and the team we built is still largely intact, so in the grand scheme of things, it was a success. I had the option to basically not join the acquiring company, but I chose to move on and do something different,” says Oakes.
‘I WAS NO LONGER THE YOUNG WHIPPERSNAPPER’
Despite leaving education as soon as he could, Oakes had become jealous of friends who had gone to university. And while he knew that he had entrepreneurial qualities — an eye for a good idea and risk-tolerance, for example — some solid business skills might be useful. “I was no longer the young whippersnapper who’d left school at 16 and started a business, which had been enough for some people to say: ‘Hey, cool! Let’s back this guy’. “I realized that if you don’t know how to read a spreadsheet or you don’t know how to apply some basic statistical tools to analyze problems, you’re going to hit a ceiling pretty quickly. For me, I felt like I had already hit that ceiling.”
Realizing that the backing of a top business school could help, he went to an Imperial taster evening and got talking to someone in the admissions team. He talked about his experiences. Things were going well, and then he “dropped the bombshell” about his lack of college education. “She immediately went and got someone more senior, and it quickly became apparent that they quite liked the sound of me but they knew that it was going to be trouble to get me in,” Oakes remembers.
Usually, to apply for an MBA at Imperial you have to have an undergraduate degree from a top university and a 600-plus GMAT. However, for around 20 years Imperial has used a Special Qualifying Examination process for candidates who don’t match the criteria for programs. This was his route in. “They basically gave me a thick textbook, and I spent the summer learning math.” he says. A GMAT of 640 under his belt, he passed the exams and began his MBA in autumn of 2016.