Skipping School

Point/counterpoint: Will a degree make you a better entrepreneur?

Are advanced business degrees a prerequisite for success? We went to entrepreneurs with strikingly different educational histories to get their take.

Aruni Gunasegaram, 31, co-founder of Isochron Data Corp., a wireless telemetry solutions company in Austin, Texas, has an MBA in entrepreneurship and information management.

"I always knew I wanted to start a business, but I didn't know in what. I had an undergraduate degree in accounting and wanted to leverage that. I thought going back to the MBA program would expose me to a variety of people who would spur an idea, and it did.

"If you're a technical person with a technical background, I wouldn't say it's required to get an MBA, as long as you find a partner with strong business skills and experience in building a business. If, however, you're like me and want to make a career transition and find different people to help you start the business and formulate the idea, I think it's great. If you're thinking about getting an MBA, having several years of real-life work experience will add value to that. I had about four-and-a-half years of experience working in the world before getting my MBA.

"If you pick your MBA program to start a company, which I did, find one that concentrates on entrepreneurship and network in that program. At the University of Texas, many outstanding professors have built businesses from scratch, run them and taught from their real-life experiences. That's much different than anything you could get from just a textbook."

Jim Lears, 29, and Steve McLelland, 25, co-founders of Louis Ravenet, 40), an Alexandria, Virginia, online customer service company, did not complete high school.

Lears: "[I learned] from experience. It's having the motivation and desire to just figure things out on your own. If there's a problem, you're going to [find a solution] no matter what it takes, regardless of education. I was going to school part time and making money during the day doing consulting work. I thought, 'This is ridiculous. I'm learning more on the job figuring things out on my own than I am in school.'

"Those people who gravitate [toward] us also don't have lots of fancy degrees and education. [Sometimes we interview potential employees], and they've got [degrees] in business or computer science. You talk to them, and [they act as if] they've been locked into this world of spoon-fed regurgitation, where they really don't have an understanding of anything. It's a passive vs. active mentality. Schooling is passive-you sit back and listen, and it's almost like a brainwashing effect takes place. There's no true understanding there."

McLelland: "It's affected [our business] in a positive way, because [without schooling], you're more aggressive and more confident in what you can do and more willing to take risks and go after things. When you're younger, it's difficult to prove to people you can do it-that you are capable. But once you prove your abilities, it's a nonissue."

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This article was originally published in the August 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Skipping School.

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