April 30, 2012 12:32 pm

Wine, women and travel

How risk-averse are you? Would you set up your own business? In the FT Global MBA 2012 ranking, women entrepreneurs are a rare entity. Only 12 per cent of female MBA graduates set up their own companies within three years of graduating, compared to 19 per cent of male graduates.

However, it could be the best decision you ever make. In an FT interview, four women who did take the plunge after graduating from their MBA in 2008 describe how their MBA helped them set up their own business and why they value the experience.

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Megan Pillsbury, Insead MBA

Prior to starting her MBA, Megan Pillsbury had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur. In fact, the thought was so far from her mind when she arrived at Insead in 2007, that she didn’t even consider taking the specialised classes on offer. As an engineer, she was interested in sustainability and was planning to work for the private sector in environmental issues.

However, everything changed when she moved to Hong Kong with her husband, after she graduated and it became apparent they made a good business team. Spotting a gap in the Asian market for wine programmes in restaurants, they launched Applied Wine in November 2010.

Megan Pillsbury

Megan Pillsbury: "Women make very inspiring leaders"

“As far as cities go, Hong Kong is really easy for setting up, there’s lots of funding for small start-ups and it costs less than €1,000 to hire a lawyer,” says Ms Pillsbury. However, for the US-born couple, the importance of networking - to find investors - has proved paramount, which is where her MBA experience has truly paid off. “Almost everyone we know here is connected to Insead,” she says. Having learnt how to network on the programme, she had the confidence and skills to ring up people from the alumni database, for example.

The couple have now finished testing their business model and are moving into the growth phase - they recently hired two new people to add to their team of five. “It’s probably the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had,” says Ms Pillsbury. “I have the MBA skills of number crunching and general management and (my husband) crashed a handful of courses during my MBA, focusing on strategy. Our brains work very differently, but we see eye-to-eye on issues, so it makes us a very strong team.”

The MBA graduate wishes there were more women entrepreneurs, particularly as she believes women are often able to manage power better than men. “Women make very inspiring leaders; they fight for good things, like family.” She advises just giving it a try. “So many women I know say they’d love to but it’s so risky and they have a secure banking job, for example - but do you really want to be thinking about that on your death bed?” she asks. “Even if you fail, it’s such an amazing journey… Being innovative, you dig into the deepest part of yourself.”

Kathleen Klasnic, London Business School MBA

Unlike, Ms Pillsbury, Kathleen Klasnic has always been interested in entrepreneurship. “My dad had his own business in consulting and I liked the flexibility that involved,” she says. When she started at London Business School, she enrolled on to several entrepreneurship classes and was soon working on her own business plans. The first never went further than the planning stage but the second - multi-lingual CRM software for the fitness industry - was a winner, in more ways than one as she went on to marry her business partner, whom she met on the course.

After graduation, the couple moved to Ireland, EU grants being a lot more appealing than the inflated business rates of London. But then the Irish economy collapsed so they relocated to Bulgaria, a place Ms Klasnic had only once visited for six months, her husband never.

Undoubtedly, it was a challenge - particularly the language barrier - but Ms Klasnic felt confident because of her MBA. “Entrepreneurship is not just about finding the right idea; it’s also having the money and connections... The MBA is very good at putting you in touch with other entrepreneurs,” she says.

Ms Klasnic advises women to focus on doing more self-promotion. “We do a great job of not being as arrogant as the boys but we can sell ourselves short” she says. For the UK-born businesswoman, it’s also important to choose your employees and business partners with care. “It’s not a nine-to-five job, it’s more like a 24/7 job so you have to like the people you’re with.”

Elizabeth Kimotho, University of Cape Town GSB MBA

Elizabeth Kimotho is from Kenya, where becoming an entrepreneur is considered a last resort - something you do when you haven’t been able to find a job. As a result, she signed up to do her MBA at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business with the intention of using it to transition from her background in brand management to tourism, ideally working for the government.

But then the course challenged her perception. “I met serial entrepreneurs who were very intelligent and that’s when I realised it is a concrete career choice,” she says. “It also gives you the opportunity to make a positive impact - if you’re not happy with the way things look or are done, start a business to change it!”

In November 2008, she launched Exclusive Eco Travels, a travel company that promotes tourism that benefits local communities. This was something she had only seen done for niche, high-end customers and she was keen to bring the concept to the middle market. She also wanted to show a more positive side of Africa.

“The ability to think strategically is something that I am thankful for from my MBA studies as well as the networks made.” The diverse backgrounds of the students she met on the course also ensured she had the right frame of mind required to work in the travel industry where she is often faced with norms that are very different from her own.

The Kenyan businesswoman has also started to teach local communities basic business principles - how to make a profit from their local traditions and customs, for example. She is pleased to see others becoming entrepreneurial as a result. “Women especially get it and run with it,” she says, describing one group of women who realised they could turn empty caves into romantic destinations for travellers.

Ms Kimotho also stresses the importance of building networks: “You can’t do things on your own… you have to keep up with trends and if you’re in your little cocoon, you will not know what’s going on.”

Kate Pletcher, UCLA Anderson MBA

Growing up, Kate Pletcher was quick to recognise business opportunities. “I was the one who was selling flowers at the end of my driveway” she says. So after graduating from her MBA programme at UCLA Anderson in 2008 and experiencing an unexpected redundancy, she was quick to move on. In November 2010, she launched Mom Corps LA, a professional staffing firm that specialises in flexible working solutions, with a fellow MBA classmate.

As the name suggests, the business primarily targets mothers who have an MBA, but others are also welcome. “We’ve definitely placed a couple of MBA dads!” says Ms Pletcher. The focus is on creating a space for top-tier talent – something she saw was needed when her MBA classmates started to ask her for help with project work. The flexible hours this work involved also made her appreciate how suitable it would be for working parents.

“I was going to be an entrepreneur either way, but the MBA gave me the confidence to do it a lot earlier” says the US businesswoman, “I actually go back to a lot of my class notes to guide me through.”

She believes entrepreneurship is second nature to most women as they tend to be uniquely equipped to handle lots of competing priorities. The main thing she says is to ask for help when it’s needed: “Drop your ego at the door, you can’t get anywhere if you’re a know-it-all.”

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