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At Harvard, Wharton, Columbia, MBA startup fever takes hold

January 3, 2015, 1:00 PM UTC


Leadership. Innovation. Entrepreneurship. All popular buzzwords in MBA programs, for sure, and three of the key ingredients in a newly redesigned core curriculum Columbia has rolled out this fall for its incoming class of 2015. The school's curriculum was last redesigned in 2009 to respond to the changing business environment wrought by the financial crisis. The new core comes on top of a highly successful fundraising campaign that has raised $500 million toward the $600 million cost of a new campus for the school, which is expected to open in early 2018. Among the latest changes, Columbia will now teach some technical components of courses online to free up more classroom time for deeper discussion. The school will also increase the number of electives students can take in the first year to allow them to make a stronger impression on employers during their summer internships.
Courtesy of Columbia University

(Poets&Quants) — On their Kickstarter video, Columbia Business School MBA candidates Connor Wilson and Nolan Walsh stand in a room where a group of male and female models cavorts around a pile of boots and shoes as they shower dollar bills upon it. “Welcome to the world of fast fashion,” Walsh says. “Models, celebrities, and huge advertising budgets, all designed to sell us inferior products that wear out quickly.”

The Kickstarter campaign set a record for sales in the first 24 hours, and Wilson and Walsh have received more than $275,000 in orders for their $199 Thursday Boot Company boots. Production started about a few months ago.

“I really like the idea of growing something small into something big,” says Wilson, a former investment analyst and portfolio manager for Thornburg Investment Management.

The two Columbia MBAs are part of a striking trend among business school students toward entrepreneurship. MBA program officials are seeing dramatic growth in student demand—including, for example, annual increases of 20% to 30% at Harvard Business School—for entrepreneurship-related offerings. Increasingly, MBAs are rushing to apply their business skills to their own enterprises.

The Graduate Management Admission Council’s recently released 2014 Alumni Perspectives Report reveals a significant rise in the number of business school graduates launching new businesses. From a survey of self-employed alumni who graduated from 1959 to 2013, GMAC has found that 45% of 2010-2013 grads started businesses directly after finishing B-school, while 80% of self-employed alumni from years past worked several years for an employer before embarking on entrepreneurial ventures.

Wilson says he and Walsh, both 29 years old and interested in “fashion broadly and boots specifically,” identified a market gap between “precious,” costly boots sold at a high markup and “cheap, low-quality fashion brands.” They also saw an opportunity to combine the durability of work boots with a fashionable product, Wilson says.

Wilson say that he went to business school to become an entrepreneur, and he chose Columbia because of the quality of education, its focus on entrepreneurialism—Dean Glenn Hubbard has for more than a decade touted the school’s entrepreneurial offerings—and its location in New York City, now reported to be the nation’s second-largest startup ecosystem, behind Silicon Valley.

Columbia mentors, including 37 Angels founder Angela Lee, helped the two students, and they received assistance from the Columbia Startup Lab’s summer program, where they took advantage of office space, legal advice, and marketing expertise, Wilson says.

“That was where we hashed out the idea that became Thursday Boots,” Wilson says.

Across the U.S., business schools are ramping up entrepreneurship programming, as students pursue dreams of lucrative innovation, and startup glory.

At the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School’s Goergen Entrepreneurial Management Program, lecturer Patrick FitzGerald has seen a tripling in the number of his students setting forth post-haste into entrepreneurial enterprises over the last four years. Now, 7% of Wharton students are starting companies right after graduation, a five-fold increase over 2007, FitzGerald says.

At the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School, some 40% of the class of 2015, 103 out of 280 students, are studying entrepreneurship—a “recent surge,” says Ted Zoller, director of the school’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

“Entrepreneurship is entering the mainstream in the economy and therefore it’s starting to enter the mainstream in the business schools,” Zoller says. “You’re starting to see people increasingly seeking out high-growth venturing as a pathway for their professional success.”

The U.S. tech boom, expanding from the West Coast, has served as the primary impetus toward entrepreneurship, Zoller says.

“We’ve seen really the rebirth of Silicon Valley, and the most important companies that are making strides are the ones that have IPO’d in the last five years,” Zoller says. “Students are increasingly interested in these types of companies.”

At the same time, technological advances and the availability of cheaper talent, such as skilled bachelor’s degree graduates, outside Silicon Valley have made it easier and far less expensive to start companies, FitzGerald says.

“Where it used to cost $200,000, you can now build a company for half that,” FitzGerald says. “You can build something quite quickly and quite cheaply.”

As these tech-driven companies are spreading, highly ranked business schools are right on their heels, Zoller says. “Any top 20 business school needs to be relevant in every technology hotspot,” Zoller says. “You’re seeing all the major business schools focusing on New York, Chicago, Boston, Silicon Valley, and increasingly overseas: Shanghai, London.

“In tomorrow’s business market, business schools will need to be where the greatest growth is.”

Many schools are planning satellite operations in these tech hubs, and they are forging links with graduates already entrenched in them.

“Many of them have built the capacity to create a really cohesive cadre of alumni in each of these markets that helps their students get placed and become leaders in the given region,” Zoller says.

Stanford’s Graduate School of Business saw a considerable jump in interest in entrepreneurship in the class of 2013, with 18% of grads starting businesses within a year, compared to 13% in 2012. The percentage didn’t change much in 2014 over 2013, but the types of startups did. Seventeen per cent of class of 2013 entrepreneurs went into finance, 13% into Internet services, and 11% into media and entertainment. In 2014, those who went into finance dropped to 11%, while Internet services and media and entertainment both plummeted to 2%; 9% went into each of three areas: energy and clean technology; health care; and software.

This year, Kenan-Flagler started the Adams Apprenticeship program, selecting the top entrepreneurial prospects from its student body to work with UNC entrepreneur alumni for a year, with each participant committing to becoming an entrepreneur within five years of graduation.

Demand for the Harvard Business School’s Rock Center for Entrepreneurship’s services has been surging in recent years, says director Meredith McPherron. The center’s New Venture Competition matches students with mentors and judges around the world as they develop and ultimately pitch their ventures.
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In the Rock Accelerator program, which receives more than 120 applications for 20 spaces, student founder teams receive $5,000 to $8,000 to work on business ideas, while student “Venture Partners” help select and support participant teams. In the Summer Fellowship program, students either work at an existing startup or work on their own startup, between their first and second years. “Over the last couple years, we’ve had enormous pickup in demand on that,” McPherron says.

Although HBS recruiting reports show that the number of students who didn’t seek employment because they were starting their own businesses hovered at 7% from 2012 to 2014, half of its graduates are entrepreneurs by 15 years after finishing school, according to HBS. Student debt is a main factor behind that timing, McPherron says. To help graduates jump into startups, HBS gives out 20 to 25 debt reductions per year, valued at $10,000 to $20,000 each. “You have to be a founder with an idea with traction, that has shown some merit,” McPherron says. Two years ago, responding to increased demand for the reductions, McPherron asked for and received more funding for the program, which pushed reduction amounts toward $20,000, McPherron says.

Among the top B-schools, there are stated divisions in what entrepreneurial roles they’re training their graduates to enter. Wharton, says FitzGerald, is chock full of MBA candidates champing at the bit to launch companies and replicate the achievements of Wharton alumni startups such as smartphone-based payment app developer Venmo; eyewear retailer Warby Parker; startup investor SeedInvest; and baby products company Quidsi, which was bought by Amazon for $545 million in 2010.

“They see the successes of those companies and realize that there’s a real possibility that [their] startup can do well,” FitzGerald says.

At Kenan-Flagler, Zoller says they’re taking a different approach, combating the media’s “prototype of the successful entrepreneur being the maven, the Steve Jobs profile, the Larry Page,” Zoller says. “We are finding that entrepreneurs are more everyday entrepreneurs, people who run businesses that are making huge contributions but may not be necessarily brand names,” he says.

At some B-schools, entrepreneurs are romanticized and a degree of “hero worship” exists, says higher education consultant and Eduvantis founder Tim Westerbeck,. “I’ve spoken with several business school deans who privately express some concerns that celebrating the glorious side of a successful entrepreneur’s story, while it may be inspiring, does a potential injustice to students, because they don’t develop the skills they need to deal with the often terribly difficult dimensions of entrepreneurship: the financial hardships, the inevitable failures, health challenges, the family disruption and conflict, the isolation, extreme stress, and need for steely resilience for prolonged periods of time.”

“These are the essential skills and competencies of entrepreneurs that are perhaps not being properly addressed in business schools.”

Not all schools are focusing on giving students tools to start their own enterprises. “We’ve decided not to be the best school for startups,” Kenan-Flagler’s Zoller says. “We’re going to be the best school for ‘grow-ups.’ We’re building a program that serves not only to support management training for large enterprises, but also high-growth enterprises.”

Kenan-Flagler is putting an emphasis on preparing students to enter executive positions in high-growth companies, or becoming funders of entrepreneurial and expanding businesses, Zoller says. “There are many ways that you can participate in entrepreneurial ventures without being the founder.”

But at Wharton, such a focus would conflict with candidates’ ambition, FitzGerald says. “Wharton folks are certainly A-type personalities. They’re probably more inclined to go out and start their own company rather than bring that entrepreneurship talent in house.”

While Wharton students may be inspired by alumni successes, that doesn’t mean Wharton is teaching hero worship, FitzGerald says. “Trying to follow iconoclasts’ models doesn’t really work,” FitzGerald says. “If you’re not true to your own business model and your own mission, you’ll fail really quickly.”

Demographically speaking, it makes sense for B-school grads to take a leap into founding enterprises while they have the chance, FitzGerald says. “It’s actually more economically feasible to do your startup now when you’re 27 as opposed to at 33 when you may have a spouse and one or two kids,” FitzGerald says.

However, Columbia Business School’s Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center uses a slogan to encapsulate a definition of entrepreneurship that includes “intrapreneurship,” the buzzword description of entrepreneurship within existing companies. The slogan, “Think, Start, Grow,” is intended to represent the need for an entrepreneurial approach within any organization, regardless of size or time in business.

“The ‘think’ element is really for anybody, I don’t care where you go to work,” says Lang Center Director Vince Ponzo. “More and more, people need the ability to think entrepreneurially, just because of the rate of change.”

Columbia is seeing heightened interest in entrepreneurship, adding seats every year to entrepreneurship courses, and holding workshops, panels, and other events on topics such as red flags in the startup process and financing ventures. Two years ago, Columbia opened its Entrepreneurs in Residence program with six residents; this year, there are eight. The program was developed to give students educational and networking entry points into specific industries and regions, to complement the school’s Entrepreneurial Sounding Board, a mentoring program involving 30 alumni who mostly advise on tactics and operations, Ponzo says.

Harvard operates under the notion that entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship derive from the same mindset, of “breakthrough thinking,” McPherron says. “We’re teaching entrepreneurial management.”
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Westerbeck believes differences between stated goals on entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship in MBA programs can be chalked up to the need to address prospective students’ desire for success, whether they want to start companies or work in established businesses.

“Every school knows that entrepreneurship as a concept is in high reported demand by incoming student populations. They also know that the vast majority of their students will not ultimately become successful entrepreneurs and will eventually go to work within an organization established by someone else,” Westerbeck says. “In a sense, it is preparing would-be entrepreneurs with the skills they will also need to be engines of growth and high-value employees within established organizations, which can be equally rewarding, ultimately, and perhaps less painful then the entrepreneurial life.”

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