The Deliberate Entrepreneur

If back to school is the last place you want to go, think twice. For a new generation of entrepreneurs, an MBA may be the surest route to success.

The Tuna Surprise is still rotting in your stomach. You'll never forget the ringing of the fire alarm, mercilessly pulled by pranksters in your dorm. Nightmares may forever jolt you out of your sweat-drenched and delusional sleep, as you beg your professor not to give you another surprise bioanthropology quiz.

And now you want to go to graduate school?

Even if you don't, your peers do, and they aren't interested in studying Elizabethan poetry. "[In their admissions essays,] 99 percent of the students say they want to someday run their own companies," marvels Marie Mookini, director of MBA admissions at Stanford University, home to one of the nation's top entrepreneurial education programs.

It wasn't always this way. According to the Los Angeles Times, in 1971, only 16 four-year colleges and graduate programs offered courses in entrepreneurship. Today, some 400 universities offer entrepreneurial programs and majors, and that doesn't even include what you can find at community colleges.

The average age of graduate students hasn't changed over the years, at least at Stanford. "They've always been around 26," says Cathy Castillo, a public relations director at the school. But there are many more 26-year-old business-owner wanna-bes than there used to be. Eight years ago, when Mookini took her position, she and her staff waded through 4,100 applications. Last year, the applications had swelled to 7,000.

Every year, for nine intense weeks, Mookini, her four-person staff and half a dozen freelancers hunch over desks to read and weed, hoping to harvest the brightest and best--for a mere 360 seats. Some students want in so badly, they add (not recommended) extras to their applications, like flowers, a family album and Chinese food. Others have sent videotapes instead of essay questions. (Before you think, "Hey, why didn't I think of that?" be glad you didn't: Mookini says, "That tells us you can't read or follow directions.") And one applicant took the essay questions too seriously--he submitted 200 pages. ("He got in, in spite of the essay questions," groans Mookini, who pleads, "Don't tell your readers--we'll just get copycats." You've been warned.) "It's hard to know what will happen this year," admits Mookini, who recently purchased her first pair of reading glasses. "The number of applicants keeps going up. Unfortunately, the class size doesn't."

So why all the fuss? What's behind the academic explosion in entrepreneurial education? If you embrace the ignorance-is-bliss theory, skip the next two paragraphs. Otherwise, read on:

"I think a special contract was established many years ago, which was essentially employment for life," says David Wilson, president of the Graduate Management Admission Council, which developed the dreaded GMAT exam. (Remember your SATs? Same concept.) Over the years, that contract has been shattered, and people are going into business for themselves on purpose, rather than waiting to be fired and then looking for alternatives. Says Wilson, "[People are] saying `Hey, wait a minute, time out. If [employees] are giving their lives . . . for 20 and 30 years and, at age 45, can suddenly be thrown out on the street, why the hell should I trust any of these people?' "

"Every time you pick up The Wall Street Journal, somebody's being downsized," agrees Bob Schwartz, director of the entrepreneurship concentration at the University of Texas at Austin. (Adding fuel to the argument: A recent Gallup poll on entrepreneurial education found that seven out of 10 high school students want to start their own businesses.) But Schwartz adds the entrepreneurial education boom is helped by other factors, such as a thriving economy and even the media (Who,us?): "It's infectious."

Parry Singh won't argue. If there are amusement parks for entrepreneurs, Singh discovered his in Evanston, Illinois, at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. (OK, so the name's not as catchy as Six Flags.) Singh, due to graduate next month, was an electrical engineer before leaving his post at a firm that had expanded from 100 to 3,000 employees. "The level of learning had plateaued for me," says Singh, 29.

So he went to graduate school (again) and immersed himself in business in a way he couldn't at an actual company. Singh researched everything from cash flow to dividing equity. He plunged down the Organizational Behavior roller coaster ("I had managed people, but I never knew how to give them good feedback at the end of the year") and whooped it up on the Marketing Strategies ride: "If you're a company creating a niche market, what do you do when a major, mass-market company comes into your market? How do you react? What are your strategies? [Professors] don't necessarily tell you what you should do, but they tell you what other companies have done."

The Ventures Class was the ride that may ultimately make Singh glad he paid the high price of admission. Students were required to develop a business plan, which Singh did with his now-business partner, Ubhash Bedi, 26. The two devised Ethnicgrocer.com, a company that specializes in delivering exactly what the name suggests, and some investors determined it was a good enough plan to take it out of the classroom. The enterprise will be split into segments--Indiangrocer.com, and then later, Mexicangrocer.com and Chinesegrocer.com. Someday, they may ruletheworld.com. But for now Singh hasn't seen any profits--a daunting prospect as college loans pile up.

Between his business and classes, Singh's working just as hard as he ever did at a job--but he's not getting paid. Rather, he's the one paying. "It's a very expensive proposition," he says. "School ends up costing an average of $100,000 for every two years, and then there's the cost of lost salary, which could be $100,000 a year as well. [You] could be down as much as $300,000 [after getting an MBA]."

Or up just as much.

Aruni Gunasegaram, 29, a '98 University of Texas grad and former student of Schwartz, is president of Isochron Data Corp., the result of a contest sponsored by her alma mater. The prestigious competition, dubbed Moot Corp., allows entrepreneurs to present their business plans to a panel of investors. In their international competition, the best plan wins $15,000. Gunasegaram created the plan, and her partner, Erin Defosse, 29, created the VendCast technology, which links soft-drink vending operators to their machines so they can determine things like when to send drivers to restock, rather than playing guessing games.

Before Gunasegaram's days at her university's Center for Entrepreneurial Growth and Development, she was an accountant toiling 60 hours a week. "Auditing was really boring," says Gunasegaram, who wasn't haunted by dreams of bioanthropology quizzes but of punching numbers into a computer.

Now, Gunasegaram labors 80 to 90 hours a week, but "I love what I do. I'm much more interested in my work." Work that has a major soft-drink company as a client. According to her contract, "I'm not allowed to say which soft drink," says Gunasegaram, "but it's one of the big three--Dr. Pepper, Pepsi or Coke." And Isochron Data recently attracted investors willing to fork over $1 million. It just goes to prove that some things never change. To earn a lot, you still have to learn a lot.

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Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the May 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Deliberate Entrepreneur.

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