Why an entrepreneurship concentration is a MBA bootstrapper’s secret weapon

BY Sam BeckerApril 29, 2021, 3:00 AM
Martin Laksman

Starting a business is a daunting task—especially for those who are young and fresh out of school. The data bears this out: Within one year, roughly 20% of small businesses fail, and after a decade 70% have shuttered, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

With that in mind, it might make sense for would-be founders to want as many tools on hand as possible. An entrepreneur MBA may be able to provide those tools, but given the success of many high-profile founders with little or no college education in recent years, the question should be asked: Why should someone spend the time and money earning an MBA when they could instead use those resources to start and build a company?

For those people who can resist the urge to jump right in, entrepreneur MBA programs, or traditional MBA programs with entrepreneurship concentrations, may end up being something of a secret weapon.

What is an entrepreneur MBA?

At many schools, entrepreneur MBA programs are part of traditional MBA programs. While some universities offer MBAs with concentrations in entrepreneurship, others offer straight-up entrepreneur MBAs, which often give students the chance to develop and launch businesses while in school.

And even if entrepreneur MBA students don’t launch their own companies, employers say they’re noticing the growth of such programs and an increasing number of entrepreneurial-focused grads with valuable skills they bring to the workforce.

“Some of these MBAs have accelerators or incubators at their school,” says Natalie Ledbetter, head of people and platform at New York City–based BoldStart Ventures, a seed-investing venture capital firm. “They’re learning the skills to run a business, but also they’re coming up with their product during their MBA program.”

While many schools do indeed have in-house accelerators and incubators, that doesn’t mean that students—even those pursuing entrepreneur MBAs or entrepreneurship concentrations—dive straight into the deep end of starting a business.

“Less than 10% of students actually launch businesses while they’re in school,” says Vickie Gibbs, executive director of the Kenan-Flagler Entrepreneurship Center at the University of North Carolina. “The average age of an entrepreneur and founder is somewhere around 38 to 45.” Given the risks and resources involved with starting a business, many entrepreneurs are waiting years—decades, even—before taking the jump. 

Preparing the next generation of founders of all types

Gibbs says that UNC’s Kenan-Flagler school, which features a full-time MBA with an entrepreneurship concentration among its several options, takes a broad approach to the concept of entrepreneurship, and that its curriculum doesn’t merely prepare students to take a swing at becoming the next tech billionaire.

For example, a number of recent graduates have found success building relatively simple, community-based businesses, like bagel shops or snack companies, Gibbs notes. Entrepreneur MBA programs are instead focused on fostering a new generation of entrepreneurs who are interested in reviving Main Street as well.

And that focus on community-based businesses is an especially critical element for certain MBA programs

Gonzaga University, for instance, offers a one-of-a-kind entrepreneur MBA program for Native American students (it’s also open to Canadian First Nations students and native Alaskans and Hawaiians). The program is designed to equip graduates with the tools they need to help stimulate economies on and around Indian reservations, and other parts of Indian country in the U.S.

The primary focus of the university’s MBA in American Indian entrepreneurship is “educating future business leaders so they can go back to their communities and make a lasting and sustainable impact,” says Mirjeta Beqiri, the MBA programs director and a professor of operations management at Gonzaga. “The goal is that students will stimulate the economy and spur development in tribal areas” after earning their degree, she says.

Prepping a new generation of bootstrappers and founders

Entrepreneur MBA students at schools like UNC and Gonzaga graduate with a set of foundational skills that can help them start and run a business. But at both schools, there’s also a focus on “soft skills” that help graduates grow businesses and serve their communities effectively.

So entrepreneur MBA programs are likely to cover much of the same ground as a traditional MBA, but with an added emphasis on nurturing students’ inner community leader.

“With the entrepreneurship [concentration], there are some hard skills you learn, and then soft skills—like critical thinking, unstructured problem solving, adaptability, and flexibility,” Gibbs says, describing the curriculum at UNC.

Beqiri says Gonzaga’s program fosters similar skills but also prepares students for the unique conditions that may be faced in Native communities. “We teach strategic thinking and great communication skills. But most importantly, we are looking for grads that will go out and have a community and economic impact,” she says.

“Yes, we discuss supply chain and disruption,” Beqiri adds. But there are so many challenges in tribal communities that students in Gonzaga’s programs often focus on making an immediate, lasting impact in their communities, rather than trying to create the next Facebook, she notes.

How the entrepreneur MBA can be a founder’s secret weapon

Whether you’re looking to open up a corner bakery or build a disruptive startup, an entrepreneur MBA can be a good way for students to develop their business ideas in a less-risky space, get hands-on experience, and create connections with potential partners or investors.

For those reasons, investing in an MBA, for some students, can pay off in spades if and when they do decide to start a business. And Ledbetter says that the hands-on experience entrepreneur MBA programs offer students is largely what separates these programs from traditional MBAs.

“Some of these schools teach you how to think really strategically, but you’re not necessarily getting that hands-on experience,” Ledbetter says. “If you’re not getting that experience being in a startup or building a startup, a lot of the knowledge you’re walking away with may not be applicable”—especially if you venture out on your own, she adds.

Aside from the experience entrepreneur MBA programs provide students through in-house accelerators and incubators, Gibbs says that perhaps the most valuable thing that grads wind up with are connections and a network. UNC, for example, has a robust mentoring program and puts students in touch with other alumni and business coaches. 

Altogether, the ability to effectively have a practice run of a small business in school, develop those connections, and actually go through some trials in a classroom setting can give entrepreneur MBA grads what they need to succeed—a secret weapon over their competitors.

Of course, getting an education is one thing. Going out, creating a viable business idea, raising money, and then putting it all into practice is something else entirely. Gibbs says that entrepreneurship MBA programs should gear students up for success, but it’s ultimately the community—partners, investors, and customers—that will determine whether a founder succeeds.

“If you want to launch a business, you’ll need the right tools,” Gibbs says. But remember: “Entrepreneurship is not a solo sport.”