I am an entrepreneur -- a moderately shocking fact for a kid from Cleveland, Ohio. What's more shocking? I’m a very proud graduate of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Yep, I willingly left the workforce for two years in order to pay to attend business school.
There is a standard list of reasons why startup types mock MBA degrees:
- An MBA is all about drinking
- An MBA is all about partying
- An MBA is all about “networking” (read: drinking and partying).
It's true that you do not need an MBA to be an entrepreneur -- actually, you don’t even need a B.A. (see: Zuckerberg, Mark). But I loved earning my MBA. I was able to co-found a business during school and learn from that experience. I was able to take time to think, refine and experiment. I was able to meet incredible people who have directly impacted the success of our business.
For those hoping to break into entrepreneurship, business school is an amazing path to do so because of its inherent opportunities:
- Experiment within an incredibly forgiving setting. While in school, I worked on a business with three other classmates. The lessons we learned were invaluable: define roles early, work on a partnership agreement, get used to the grind of working on a startup, build a diverse team in terms of perspective and skill set. Equally valuable is that on any campus there’s an unparalleled wealth of resources – classmates, professors, undergrads and students in other departments like the Information and Computer Science schools.
- Build a relevant local network. Being a successful entrepreneur requires you to be resourceful and to find answers to complex issues. Working hard and meeting smart people affords you not only their insight, but also that of their network. Building strong relationships through intense and ongoing interactions (like school projects, event planning, or yes, having fun) creates a large advocacy network. Your classmates will want to see you succeed, and they will happily introduce you to their friends who can help. Of course, business school is great for future business development. This is analogous to a management consultant who builds relationships with junior-level folks at client companies. In 10 years when they are both at a senior level, they will have a great working relationship.
- Find your investors. Our lead investor is a great VC, Michael Berolzheimer, who graduated from Haas four years before me. The rest of the round is filled out with Cal grads, and folks whom I have met through warm introductions.
- Hire a great team. Our Creative Director Ashil is a close friend’s cousin and our startup lawyer, Doug Bend, is another’s brother. Our Technical Director is a Cal undergrad whom I met while speaking to an entrepreneurship group. As we engage in hiring now, I can count on my classmates to provide great candidates.
- Collect classwork that might actually come in handy. Business school was the first time I took a formal course in marketing, finance, accounting, sales and operations. Is a lot of it theoretical? Yes. Have I taken lessons from each class and applied them to Modify? Absolutely. Even more valuable were entrepreneurship classes from Steve Blank and Eric Ries, a startup workshop from Dave Charron in which I received the instant feedback every entrepreneur needs, and "Problem Finding, Problem Solving" class from Sara Beckman that gave me the beginning of a toolkit for creative problem solving and design thinking.
“You don’t know what you don’t know” is one of my favorite phrases. With the right attitude and the right goals, any work, educational, travel or other experience will help you improve as an entrepreneur. Done right, business school can provide you the space to come up with that brilliant idea, the resources to execute it, and the support network that you will need during the entrepreneurial grind. And yes, it might provide people who are good at celebrating your successes too.
If you don’t believe me, just ask the entrepreneurial and venture capital guru Ben Horowitz from Andreessen Horowitz: maybe MBAs are undervalued.
Aaron Schwartz is Founder and CEO at Modify Industries, Inc., which designs interchangeable custom watches known as Modify Watches. He loves working on startup ideas and has spent innumerable (happy) hours advising friends and former students on how to grow their ideas.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.