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.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the May 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

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, 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, and then later, and Someday, they may 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.

Northwestern University (Kellogg Graduate School of Management)

Located: Evanston, Illinois

Tuition per year: $25,872 full time; $33,989 part time

Part-time or full-time: Both

Time needed to complete the program: two years full time, with summers off; 2.5 years part time, including summers

Degree awarded: MBA

Sample course titles: "Entrepreneurial Finance," "Internet Business Model," "Case Studies in Venture Capital"

For more information: ; (847) 491-3300

Why it's worthy: The Entrepreneur Lab offers beginning students opportunities to form teams and undertake consulting assignments with companies--mostly ones in a start-up incubator located near campus. Classes are reportedly first-rate. Graeme Alexander, 29, loved a class appropriately titled, "There Are No Rules." "I was surprised at how fluid deal-making is," says Alexander. "There is no formula. It's all about what two or more parties can agree on."

University of Southern California (Marshall School of Business)

Located: Los Angeles

Tuition per year: $21,374 full time; $28,500 part time

Part-time or full-time: Both. Part-timers receive an Executive MBA, instead of a traditional MBA. It's the same thing, except classes are held evenings and weekends.

Time needed to complete the program: Two years (both full time and part time)

Degrees awarded: MBA; Executive MBA

Sample course titles: "Feasibility Analysis," "Managing Rapidly Growing Ventures," "The Business Plan"

For more information: ; (213) 740-1111

Why it's worthy: The Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies takes its name very seriously. While the building is new, the program has been around since 1971. "It's the best overall program for budding entrepreneurs," one 28-year-old student raved. "Unbelievable teachers and contacts," said another.

Real-world experience can also be found here. You could join the Entrepreneur Venture Management Association, which features a zillion different events, "such as speakers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists," says 26-year-old student Lorena Martin, "or idea forums, where students present their ideas and receive feedback in a confidential environment."

University of California, Los Angeles (The John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management)

Located: Los Angeles

Tuition per year: In-state $11,019; out-of-state $20,703

Part-time or full-time: Both

Time needed to complete the program: Two years (full time); three years (part time)

Degree awarded: MBA

Sample course titles: "Business Plan Writing," "Negotiations," "Business Ethics"

For more information: ; (310) 825-6121

Why it's worthy: Every year, the Harold Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies oversees up to half a mil in seed capital, which is sometimes provided to Anderson students with potentially dynamite businesses in mind. The Entrepreneur Association is the club to be in, and the 350 students can choose from 25 programs to be involved with, such as the Mentor Program or the Venture Development Program. You'll have discussions with groups like the Venture Capital Roundtable and be inspired by speakers like the founders of Southwest Airlines and Starbucks.

Babson College (F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business)

Located: Babson Park, Massachusetts (15 miles from Boston)

Tuition per year: $22,600 for two-year program; $30,960 for one-year program; $8,184 for evening program

Part-time or full-time: Both. There's a two-year program, a one-year program, and a program with all evening classes.

Degree awarded: MBA

Sample course titles: "Assessing Business Opportunities," "Growing Business in a Changing Environment"

For more information: ; (781) 239-4420

Why it's worthy: It's a veteran in entrepreneurship studies. Founder Roger Babson was an entrepreneur, and the school has offered entrepreneurial courses since the 1960s. The Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship functions as classrooms and meeting places for students and their clients. "There's a heavy emphasis on guest speakers in the classroom, and the professors are excellent," says Greg Johnstone, 28, who co-founded a technological company before he applied to Babson.

"I learned franchising from the founders of Jiffy Lube and Dunkin' Donuts," says Christian Lesstrang, 28. "I took a class from a financier of Cellular One."

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan School of Management)

Located: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Tuition per year: $27,100

Part-time or full-time: Full-time

Time needed to complete the program: Two years, starting every fall. (We hear the leaves in Massachusetts are really pretty.)

Degree awarded: MBA

Sample course titles: "The Nuts and Bolts of Business Plans," "Technology Entrepreneurship," "Entrepreneurship Without Borders"

For more information: ; (617) 253-2659

Why it's worthy: Second-year student Joel Serface, 29, thinks it's the best college for entrepreneurs in the world. He's president of the MIT Venture Capital & Investment Club, which helps students learn how to find--and spend--capital for their start-ups.

Crystal Trexel, 23, is a big fan of the classes. She especially enjoyed "Product Design and Development," which brought together MBA-ers, engineering students and the industrial design crowd so teams of students could create a new product from conception to prototype. Be aware: You'll enjoy yourself more at MIT if your start-up is technology-based.

University of Pennsylvania (The Wharton School)

Located: Philadelphia

Tuition per year: $26,290

Part-time or full-time: Full-time

Time needed to complete the program: Two years

Degree awarded: MBA

Sample course titles: "Private Equity Financing," "Legal Aspects of Entrepreneurship," "High-Technology Entrepreneurship"

For more information: ; (215) 898-6183

Why it's worthy: The school has an entrepreneurial club, of course, and impressive speakers, like Peter Lynch and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, frequently drop by the campus to talk in formal and informal settings. But most impressive may be the networking that goes on at Wharton, suggests Elizabeth Woodcock, 28. "Wharton's alumni network is saturated with successful entrepreneurs who are willing to give of their time to speak to clubs and classes, and also to network," says Woodcock, who adds that one of Wharton's alumni has become her partner and financier in a health-care IT venture. "I have been overwhelmed by supportive faculty and fellow students."

University of Texas at Austin (The Texas Business School)

Located: If you can't figure this out, you don't deserve to attend.

Tuition per year: In-state $19,062; out-of-state $28,212; international $28,312

Part-time or full-time: Full-time

Time to complete program: Two years

Degree awarded: MBA

Sample course titles: "Managing Growth," "Entrepreneurship and New Ventures"

For more information: ; (512) 471-7603

Why it's worthy: Like the state, UTA's interest in entrepreneurs is big. The graduate program has 20 internships at start-up companies, lots of professors who double as entrepreneurs, an Austin Technology Incubator that specializes in high-tech start-ups, and a very active club called the Entrepreneurship Society.

Second-year student Laura Bennett didn't intend to be an entrepreneur, but was so impressed by the curriculum she now plans to start her own business someday. The school's location is also a plus, Bennett says: "The Austin community is full of small to medium-sized businesses that like to tap into MBA knowledge. This provides us with a great learning experience. The projects I've participated in have been mostly with large, national companies. But I've also [had] classes where students have worked with local companies, including Dell, Whole Foods and several smaller technology companies."

Contact Sources

Isochron Data Corp., 3925 W. Breaker Ln., #2470, Austin, TX 78759,

Geoff Williams ( got a C- in bioanthropology.


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