Poets&Quants’ Top MBA Startups Of 2021

Jhanvi Shriram and Ketaki Shriram, sister co-founders of Krikey. Courtesy photo

Percentage-wise, Stanford’s GSB continues to produce the most MBA founders each year. In 2020, some 18.16% of Stanford’s graduating class of MBAs elected to launch companies immediately after graduation. That’s a three percentage-point jump compared to last year’s class and at least a seven-year high dating back to the graduating class of 2014. Not surprisingly, considering its jump in total founders, Harvard Business School also saw a major surge in the percentage of MBAs launching companies in 2020 compared to recent graduating classes. Some 11.29% of Harvard MBAs launched companies within three months of graduation last year. That’s a jump of more than four percentage points compared to 2019’s class, and, like Stanford, higher than at least the past seven classes.

It wasn’t the same for the other five schools that we’ve been tracking. MIT, Wharton, Chicago, Columbia, and Northwestern all saw drops in the percentage of MBAs launching companies immediately after graduation. MIT has seen the biggest percentage drop among MBAs, going from 10% of MBAs launching companies in 2018 to 6.7% in 2019 to 3.46% last year.

The San Francisco Bay Area continues to be the most popular home base for top MBA startups. Of course, this is largely influenced by the number of Stanford MBAs on the list. Of the 100 top MBA startups, 34 are based in the San Francisco Bay Area. New York City is the next most popular base for our top MBA startups, claiming 15 of the startups. Boston is the only other city with a high amount of this year’s top MBA startups, with eight. This was the most international group of startups we’ve had on our list with 26 startups based outside of the U.S. The most popular international spots are Mexico City, Bogota, and Singapore, all of which claim three of this year’s top MBA startups.

Part of that growth in international-based startups is due to the increase of international MBA programs getting startups on this year’s list. INSEAD, for example, had more startups represented than any other international school in the seven-year history of this list. One of the newest changes to INSEAD’s entrepreneurship program is the development of an immersive three-day capstone course focused on entrepreneurship.

“As part of a management team, students will take on a series of real-life business challenges confronting a young, relatively resource-scarce firm operating in an opportunity-rich environment to achieve high growth and international expansion,” says Xiaowei Rose Luo, the chair of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise Area and a professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise. “The business challenges require the management team to integrate knowledge learned from the core courses, divide the work, coordinate contributions, and thus sharpens the team’s ability to adapt and learn in a dynamic environment.”

Increased focus on experiential learning has also been a strategy at Columbia Business School. According to a school spokesperson, CBS has recently launched a new program for VC-focused students to conduct due diligence for the B-school’s investment fund. “This allowed us to open up an application cycle to alumni this spring, to which 150 startups applied,” the CBS spokesperson says. CBS has also added focus on developing specific character strengths to enhance resiliency — a buzzword often used to describe the personalities or qualities of successful entrepreneurs. The B-school has also tripled its Summer Fellowship Program funding, where students are financially supported to intern at startups and small VC funds.


Of course, the elephant in the proverbial room is this is the first year we’ve tracked this data in which the pandemic has been impacting the world and economy for more than a year. At CBS, the school says interest in entrepreneurship and early-stage investing has risen. Applications for the summer accelerator program at CBS increased by 40% in 2020 and that applications for this summer have also remained strong.

“We’ve had increased access to speakers and coaches without the geographical limitations,” the school spokesperson adds. For example, CBS created a new video series via Zoom focusing on CBS startup success stories. A related benefit officials at CBS say the pandemic has provided is focus on new ways to network like using digital platforms for events.

“Initially founders grappled with how to deal with the disruption,” the CBS official says. “By summer, students were considering new ventures with the pandemic top of mind. A year later, they no longer view the pandemic as a disruption to their plans but as an opportunity to innovate. Now founders are less focused on solving pandemic-associated issues directly, but rather just a part of their strategic decisions. This has led to increased innovation around digital tools and platforms (e.g. digital health, cybersecurity), as well as interest in social enterprise.”

Xiaowe Rose Luo of INSEAD. Courtesy photo


It’s a lot of the same at INSEAD, according to Rose Luo.

“It has become even more important to improve some of the essential qualities of entrepreneurship, such as resilience, innovation, and adaptability, during the pandemic,” she says. “Some of our courses have been taught online. Even the field trip courses are converted to online sessions. We take the advantage of the Zoom sessions to invite entrepreneurs from around the world to share with our students how they cope with the challenges during the pandemic and turn the constraints into opportunities. Our alumni have been invited to share with current MBAs about their learnings. These sessions have enriched our students’ learning and prepared them with skills and willingness to face uncertainties and change.”

Managing cash flow has also been a point of emphasis for Rose Luo.

“The pandemic has reinforced the importance of managing the cash flow, diversifying supply chain risks, and being able to adapt quickly for startups,” Rose Luo explains. “A much higher percentage of startups went under than large, established firms. Running out of cash and huge disruption of the supply chain are among the main reasons for their bankruptcy. But the pandemic has also given rise to many opportunities for entrepreneurs, in industries such as logistics, medical supply, and online learning. Some startups are more capable of catching these opportunities to grow than others, and it is worthwhile to acquire these capabilities and processes in the increasingly uncertain world today.”


In terms of getting funding cash, both CBS officials and Rose Luo said investments initially slowed but have since went back to pre-pandemic levels or better. “Generally speaking, most portfolio companies have either not been impacted or been positively impacted by the pandemic,” CBS officials say.

Says Rose Luo: “The funding for start-ups has generally experienced some decline initially, but then quickly bounced back. In the U.S., the VC funding saw a slight drop in the first four months of 2020 but has caught up since then. On average deal size and valuation has continued to grow thanks to the capital resources available. Investors show strong confidence in the recovery of the economy and see probably an even stronger need for high-quality ventures in the post-pandemic world.”

See the next pages for all 100 of this year’s top MBA startups.

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