Does an Entrepreneur Need an MBA?
November 21, 2010 § 1 Comment
I started my career as an entrepreneur at twenty-four years old, right out of college. I ultimately built and sold a $250 million global scrap metal company, an experience I wrote about in my book Starting from Scrap. HBR wrote about my experiences in the December issue. After my book came out, I visited several U.S. business schools and met with MBA students to talk about my experiences launching a company in emerging markets. Many of the students who came to hear me speak were aspiring entrepreneurs in the process of getting MBAs. Many of them asked similar questions: “You didn’t get an MBA, nor did many other successful entrepreneurs, so if I want to start my own company, is business school a worthwhile experience? Is it worth paying all this tuition — or will my degree just be a resume-builder?”
I once had a conversation about this topic with Dr. John Yang, the dean of the Beijing International MBA program at Beijing University. Here’s what he had to say: “In my opinion, entrepreneurship is a matter of the heart, and education is a matter of the brain. It is difficult to teach a heart.” I share his perspective.
By definition, an entrepreneur is one who takes risk. It’s an attitude and an appetite, one which may be hardwired into one’s personality. Education can influence one’s attitude toward risk: for instance, understanding the principle of diversification or the long-term returns of equities versus bonds may make an investor more willing to create a “riskier” stock portfolio. But ultimately, can you teach someone to really enjoy taking risks? I don’t think you can.
When I think about the value of an MBA for aspiring entrepreneurs, I see a parallel with the military. Countries spend billions of dollars training soldiers so they’ll be ready for combat — they’re taught to fire rifles and operate in simulated high-pressure situations. But that training only goes so far. A Marine colonel once told me that he never knows how a soldier will respond — whether he’ll hide in his foxhole, run in the other direction, or stand and fight as he’s been trained #8212; until the bullets start flying. How someone reacts in times of great stress relies largely in instincts and the makeup of his or her personality — and training only takes you so far. The same is true with entrepreneurship. Understanding strategy, finance and marketing can be very helpful. But it’s also important to possess self-confidence, a need for independence, energy and passion, curiosity, and an ability to communicate ideas.
If you don’t have these natural assets, you’ll struggle as an entrepreneur. I’m lucky, because those are personal attributes that I have. I don’t have an MBA, but I’ve picked up many of the business skills I needed during more than 15 years running a company. (My grandfather referred to me as having an MBA from the School of Hard Knocks, whose official colors are black and blue — an expensive education that makes Harvard Business School appear inexpensive by comparison).
Many of the lessons I learned from those tough and painful experiences I might have learned in an MBA program — and if I’d learned them earlier, my company might have been even more successful. As the HBR article makes clear, if I’d understood the use and importance of financial and inventory controls, I could have prevented millions of dollars in fraud. Perhaps studying cases about companies that had grown too fast and lost control of both their finances and the quality of their products would have encouraged me to expand at a more sober pace.
We wasted years trying to re-organize after over-expanding and perhaps missed countless opportunities in the process. I could have saved or made a lot more money had I taken some courses in business law or venture capital financing. (We ended up getting strong armed by our investors, and they got away with it due to our early-stage naiveté.) I also would have benefited if I’d known more about human resources and the need for well-designed compensation and incentive systems.
These are just a few of the tools you can get in business school — and they’re all tools I wished I’d had. So I believe MBA programs do give future entrepreneurs valuable tools to help them mitigate risk and increase the probabilities of success.
But even with those tools, only you know whether or not you have the heart to execute on the opportunities we all recognize to launch a compelling new business.
That is when the real bullets start flying.