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Why Business Owners Are Heading Back to Campus Many successful entrepreneurs are becoming serial students as they look to expand their skills and grow their businesses.

By David Port

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

There's no substitute for the education entrepreneurs get in the competitive trenches, starting and running their own business. But there are cases in which a return to the classroom is the best--if not the only--way to get ahead. Some seek the type of immediate and tangible returns that come from learning a new language or skill, while others are searching for long-term solutions to jump-start stagnant businesses. And no matter their motivation for hitting the books, they're also challenged with keeping their companies afloat while they do it. These entrepreneurs are taking the leap--making a return trip to academia in search of the expertise they can't get on the job.

Motivation for More Education
New York City photographer Chris Corradino is among many successful entrepreneurs who are becoming serial students, perpetual pupils fortifying their skills, knowledge bases and résumés with additional academic work in the hope it will translate directly into growth for their ventures, either now or in the future. Corradino says the six-week "Writing for the web" course he took this summer through Media Bistro for $500 has already paid for itself in new clients, while also generating a pipeline full of new prospects, plus a sharp uptick in website traffic and Facebook followers. "I wanted to use my blog to take my business to the next level. It seems to be working."

Corradino says he's now considering a creative writing class to further expand his skills—and his opportunities. So what motivates him and other entrepreneurs to take on the new responsibilities that come with continuing their education, even as they continue running a business?

"Usually it's because they have a found a gap in their background that's troubling them," says Tom Kinnear, managing director of the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneur Studies within the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

"I felt like something was missing--that getting an MBA might be a good thing to do," explains Verdi Ergn, a first-year MBA candidate at Ross who, after selling two successful food service ventures he started as an undergraduate, recently launched Own, a point-of-sale cashiering system developer. "There's a lot out there that I don't know."

For Gayle Reaume, the journey back to the classroom began with the hard-to-swallow realization that beyond a sluggish economy and escalating competition, perhaps her own limitations were holding her small company back.

"We certainly weren't growing as fast as I wanted to grow," Reaume, says of the Money Academy, the Austin venture she founded in 2005 to provide financial education programs for young people. "Growing a company means you need to know how the whole company works--every part of it. I've always been strong at certain things, like marketing, but I could see I was struggling with the intricacies of building and running a growth-oriented company."

Then Reaume had an epiphany, realizing that as the person who nurtured her own company from idea to successful enterprise, she also had the power to lead it to new heights. But doing so would require a little extra professional seasoning that she wasn't likely to get on the job. It was time, Reaume concluded, to go back to school.

"I'm a huge proponent of staying on top of your game through education," she explains. "It helps us stay engaged with a business landscape that is changing really fast."

Reaume's educational muse led her to enroll in ACTiVATE, a Texas State University postgraduate CEO development program for women entrepreneurs. Even before completing the year-long program (through evening courses that accommodated her ongoing duties running a company and a household), the $2,000 she paid in tuition has already produced big benefits by helping her land angel funding and scale up the company, she says. "I would have paid $10,000 for it. It's been a godsend."

For entrepreneurs like Reaume, the bottom-line benefits of executive education--whether via a quick, no-cost one-day online workshop, a full-blown, big-ticket MBA program at a top-flight brick-and-mortar institution or one of the many options in between--far outweigh the costs.

For entrepreneurs such as Jennifer Escalona and Dario Passadore, the educational impetus came from a desire to diversify and grow their companies. Escalona, an Atlanta-based social media consultant, departed this summer for a two-month Spanish language immersion course in Colombia, hoping it would help her build a Spanish-speaking clientele. Likewise, Passadore, president of Darmic Consulting, a consulting firm in Boca Raton, Fla., immersed himself in ISO training courses earlier this year, intent on steering his company into the international standards compliance arena. So far, so good, he says. "It allowed us to make a radical change in the company, to establish a whole new division. We went from zero to 100 in a couple months. Now [standards compliance consulting] is the main focus of our go-to-market strategy. That part of our business is really kicking."

Newly armed with an MBA in marketing that she earned on weekends while running her New York City-based public relations firm, ProwessPR, Erin Freeley says she now has the ability to deliver fully integrated PR and marketing plans. "And having my MBA makes my recommendations more credible, I think."

But continuing education is about more than building credibility, says Passadore. "It's about your own personal and professional growth--building the skills to make you a better leader, a better manager, a better entrepreneur."

Nonetheless, those skills are also marketable and bankable, an important consideration for entrepreneurs for whom the back-to-school end game is business growth. "My clients are excited about it because gaining access to the Hispanic market is big for them, too," says Escalona. "I see [learning Spanish] as giving me a big advantage over my competition."

Instant Grad-ification
Another huge benefit of straddling the line between student and business owner is the opportunity to use what you learn in class almost immediately to solve real-world business problems. "I've definitely gotten ideas in class, especially on the marketing side, that have been really useful to my company," says Rebecca Andino, who's working toward her MBA at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., while running Highlight Technologies, a Fairfax, Va., tech and support services company that makes its living largely from government contracts.
What's more, notes Reaume, by fortifying your knowledge base, "you can look to yourself for solutions instead of counting on other people to come in and solve your problems."

Access is another major perk of an executive education. The networking opportunities and contacts made through educational programs can prove invaluable. Today's classmates, professors and alumni might prove to be tomorrow's client, funding source, business partner board member or trusted strategic advisor. "You enter into a network where suddenly all these resources open up to you," says Kinnear.

Executive education also provides business owners who have been immersed in the day-to-day workings of their companies with a much-needed outside perspective, says Alana Muller, president of the Kauffman Foundation's FastTrac educational program for entrepreneurs. "It forces them to take a good, hard look at their business as it currently stands. That's vital for taking a business to the next level."

Balancing Act
The educational path a business owner takes to find that next level depends largely on two key resources: time and money. Adding academic responsibilities to an already heavy workload might be more than some entrepreneurs can handle. "I recently stopped using the word 'busy' and replaced it with 'productive,'" quips Corradino. "And there were a few times where I definitely found myself overly productive."

Here are some pointers for finding a program that's right for you--and successfully getting what you want from it:

  • Don't let ambition cloud good sense. Sometimes a quick-hit workshop or a single course is all you need.
  • Seek out flexibility. Find programs that fit your schedule; many institutions offer weekend, evening and online courses.
  • If you can afford it, pay the freight for a top-flight program. "They will give you the best education and preparation, along with more credibility, and more marketing and branding power," says Passadore.
  • Don't over-commit professionally or academically. "You'll do a disservice to yourself, your clients and your course work," says Freeley.
  • Try to preserve a semblance of balance. "You don't want to do a half-good job of running a business or a half-good job of being a student," says Kinnear. If, for MBA candidates, that means taking just a course or two at a time, or taking a semester off when business or family commitments dictate, so be it, adds Andino.

Once all the personal and professional factors have been weighed, says Kinnear, the decision to attempt the back-to-school balancing act comes down to simple costs and benefits. "The program has to be highly relevant to make it worthwhile."

Back-to-school Resources for Business Owners

ACTiVATE entrepreneurship programs: For mid-career women

Consortium for Entrepreneurship Education and U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship: For the scoop on cutting-edge entrepreneurship programs.

Kauffman FastTrac: Programs include GrowthVenture (for existing entrepreneurs to improve a business); NewVenture (for aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs); TechVenture (for technology and life sciences entrepreneurs).

MIT Enterprise Forum: Entrepreneurial educational programs (podcasts, workshops, etc.) via a volunteer-driven network of 24 global chapters.

National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship: For info on community college entrepreneurial programs.

SCORE: Counselors to America's Small Business (aka Service Corps of Retired Executives): Free online and in-person mentoring via a national counseling force of 11,000 working and retired business owners and execs at 400 local chapters

Small Business Development Centers: SBA-sponsored network of 1,100 local offices offering workshops, training and other resources for entrepreneurs/small business owners.

U.S. Small Business Development Administration: Oversees wide range of programs, including Emerging 200 initiative for inner-city businesses, plus other entrepreneurial education and support programs.

David Port

Entrepreneur Contributor

David Port is a freelancer based in Denver who writes on small business, and financial and energy issues.

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