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Embarking on Business School with an Entrepreneurial Vision (Part 2 of 2)

Amidst the debate of whether business school represents a worthwhile undertaking for students planning to pursue entrepreneurship, there is scant attention paid to how to go about creating a new venture, once one has made the decision to go to business school.

Much has changed in the past 5-7 years – entrepreneurship in business school has morphed from being a very small fraction of MBA job-search activity relative to the mainstream MBA recruiting efforts of professional services firms and Fortune 500 companies, to becoming one of the core economic objectives that validates the educational process itself. Yet the curricular shape of most MBA programs (core courses first followed by electives) hews to a traditional model that tends to work less well for entrepreneurs than it does for those pursuing the traditional two-step process of MBA summer internship recruiting followed by MBA full-time recruiting.

In many respects, the traditional business school model of having the first year serve to provide a broad, general foundation across the academic verticals – core course offerings in Finance, Marketing, Accounting, etc. – followed  by a second year in which there is relatively more room for students to explore electives, independent study projects, and experiential learning programs that lend themselves better to new venture initiation – leaves MBA entrepreneurs as a whole with too little time, in my opinion, to sufficiently test their ideas and to have a chance to fail and try again before they graduate.

An alternative way of plotting one’s course through business school might make sense for MBA entrepreneurs. It involves thinking of the first-year of school as the true focus of the entrepreneurial ‘career path’ and the better proving ground (vs. the second year of school) for new business formation.

While making sure to meet the considerable performance demands of the MBA core, the student entrepreneur can nonetheless take it upon herself to find a faculty mentor, a seed investor, alumni champions, and business partners (MBA classmates or students in other graduate programs who might supply additional knowledge capital), and to undertake the legal groundwork for formation of entity and all of the other tasks that will allow her to launch the business in the summer after the first year of school.

If one thinks of business school as an incredibly resource-rich and stimulating environment for the process of trial and error involved in incubating one’s business idea, then there is a premium on getting as much done as possible, as early as possible, and fully testing the feasibility of a new venture, while residing for as long as possible in a relatively “sheltered environment” before graduating and having to fully fend for oneself again.

The advantage of launching during the summer, in lieu of a traditional MBA internship, is that if all goes well, the student entrepreneur could then simply keep on going … she can take a leave of absence, making sure that she remains a student in good standing (most programs allow up to five years of time within which a student can return to complete the program, without having to apply for re-admission).

In the unlikely event (statistically speaking) that the student entrepreneur succeeds in a new venture, then completing the degree can ultimately be done on one’s own time, and everyone, alma mater and student alike, can celebrate in the success of the new enterprise. (In my experience, the greatest satisfaction is when an MBA student becomes an MBA “employer” in record time, returning to campus to vet new talent for his or her growing organization.)

In the more frequent scenario in which a new venture is not immediately successful, and even if a student has spent a year or two pursuing that work after the first-year of business school, there remains the relatively attractive scenario of simply returning to finish business school as a “second-year MBA,” a status that allows the student to engage in the full-time MBA recruiting process for a range of opportunities without skipping a beat … or, more precisely, after experiencing an alternative to the traditional MBA summer internship that, in all likelihood, involved a greater degree of difficulty, real-world learning and self-realization.

This strategy – front-loading new venture initiation during the first-year of business school and leveraging the second-year of school either as a process of refinement for the new business or as a sort of an insurance policy in case one’s start-up dreams don’t materialize – is simply one idea, a flexible way of thinking about the structure of school and the needs and goals of entrepreneurs, rather than a recommended path or “best practice.”

The important thing is to realize that the needs of MBA entrepreneurs and the risks they face are unique, and they may not always be in synch with the way in which the progression of courses of study and experiences/opportunities are framed in most business school contexts.

As a professor of mine once said, “You’re a newly-minted MBA only once.” The implication of that comment is that the amount of opportunity, choice, and market power one has – whether as an MBA entrepreneur or as an MBA job candidate for any and all of the organizations that recruit at business schools – is fleeting. For those who intend to leverage business school to start a new business, it makes sense to think carefully about how to structure and time one’s efforts to potentially pursue a bold, individualistic path and to participate and partake as fully as possible in all that business school has to offer.

Ivan Kerbel – Bio:

Ivan Kerbel is the CEO of Practice LLC, an educational services firm that conducts an intensive, annual pre-orientation program for newly-admitted MBAs, The Practice MBA Summer Forum.

Ivan served previously as Director of the Career Development Office at The Yale School of Management and as a Sr. Associate Director at Wharton’s MBA Career Management office. He is a Wharton MBA alumnus and a former management consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a New York City strategy consulting boutique. Ivan can be reached via LinkedIn.