Dropout billionaires have cast serious doubt on the value of an MBA. But I couldn’t have raised my first million without one.
Ten years into my professional career, I was promoted into a director role in a mid-sized company—and was beginning to think about launching my own firm. Still, in meetings people would often assumed I would take minutes, even though I’d been invited for my expertise and ideas. Being treated like a glorified administrator was just one of a handful of experiences that made me realize that, for whatever reason, I wasn’t being taken seriously by my peers.
But despite my frustration, I didn’t feel ready to start a company yet. If even my own colleagues didn’t take me seriously, how would investors? Would I be taking notes instead of elaborating on my business plan?
Looking to close my own confidence gap, I went back to business school—against the advice of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and countless other tech thought leaders. Silicon Valley wisdom says that MBA degrees stifle innovation, and that instead of going to school, one should “just be successful.” Yet I’d argue that people who simply launch a company with zero training are the exceptions to the rule; to discount the value of an MBA is a misinformed way of going about business.
It’s true, more than half of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women don’t have MBAs. But they were still more likely to complete an advanced degree than not. And while there are certainly success stories of female entrepreneurs who made it without a college degree, many are in lifestyle industries: Mary Kay Ash, Rachael Ray, Debbi Fields of Mrs. Fields. There are far fewer women who opted out of formal education in the tech and science fields—Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, is probably the best known.
What an MBA program provides you with is the ability to think and communicate on the same level as your potential investors, many of whom have an MBA diploma squirreled away somewhere. For women, who don’t conform to the young, white male archetype of tech success, being able to connect intellectually is particularly important. An MBA armed me with the extra credibility I needed as a female founder.
There’s a misconception that higher education can stunt a person’s ability to “think outside the box.” While that may be true of a program that encourages the cram-and-ace mentality many of us encountered in our undergrad days, my MBA taught me to think strategically. I learned how to articulate my strategic and business acumen, to put all the pieces of my business plan together, and then to communicate my vision in a way that resonated with investors and other business people.
Because I went back to school after almost ten years in the workforce, I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of my MBA. I approached it as a career move, not a degree. The program connected dots and touched on problems I’d already wrestled with in my career. My MBA was CEO 101.
Then there’s the side effect of putting myself through an MBA program while working full-time: Upon graduation, I had already gone through the “startup bootstrapping experience.” Dozens of humbling adjustments to my lifestyle and a new, $50,000 hole in my savings later, my minimum viable product was a mostly-online degree from a tiny local university. It was no Harvard or Yale, but it did the trick.
The two-year program was my sandbox, in which I sketched out the business case for mobile payments in my master’s thesis. That project would eventually become the early business plan for Control, my company.
The “if I could do it, why can’t anybody?” mentality is an easy sell to generations of Americans who are disenchanted with the education system and hungry for startup glory. However, the reality for many—particularly women and minorities—is that more education means more money, more power and more success.
Kathryn Loewen is the founder and CEO of Control, which helps businesses manage and track their online sales in real-time. In her 15 years in the payments space, she has worked for companies like Citigroup and SAP, and developed solutions for brands like Apple, Toyota and Oakley. She holds an MBA from Royal Roads University.