As an assistant vice president for an environmental engineering firm, Ellen Allen thought getting her MBA would help her advance in the business world. She also had dreams of being an entrepreneur, and figured the knowledge she gained from an MBA program could only help make that dream come true.

Things didn't quite work out the way Allen expected. Instead of helping her climb the corporate ladder or start a brand new company, Allen's MBA program introduced her to franchising--specifically, to Merry Maids, the franchise she joined in 1994.

"I was working on a project in graduate school, where I had to put together a business plan for a business I wasn't involved in. I bought a [franchising] magazine, I guess because I was trying to cheat a little and save time," says Allen, 40. Intrigued by the franchising model, she began researching different industries, taking particular interest in cleaning services. Allen looked at 10 different cleaning franchises before selecting Merry Maids.

The knowledge she gained from her MBA program helped Allen in the start-up phase of her franchise. "I would not known how to do the financial planning or how to approach the strategy if I had not been in an MBA program," she says.

Her education was also an asset as Allen expanded her franchise to three locations in Virginia and West Virginia. "It's helped me do longer-term planning, strategically looking at the ever-changing environment in which we're operating," she says. "Whether it's a change in tax environment, unemployment law or workers compensation, one of the greatest insights I gained from a master's program is not just looking internally but externally at what's going on and how to position my business to hopefully not just respond but to be in front of the market."

Allen's current focus is employee retention, something she believes will benefit her business by aiding in customer retention. "It's a matter of trying to make the incentives appealing enough to overcome what can be an unattractive job," she says. "People don't grow up wanting to be maids--that's just a truth of what we do--but we try to give them dignity and show them respect. We hope that helps in retention."

Running three franchises, creating incentive programs for employees, handling accounting and the many other things Allen does for her Merry Maids franchise prove she's putting her education to good use. "It's a great way to work and live, and you can see the results of your education in action," she says. "It's not something you've got and you forget about. You actually get to put it to work every day."