MBA generation demands start-up expertise

FT entrepreneurship course ranking reflects how more students want to go it alone
Seedcamp's Carlos Espinal says that while studying for an MBA, students were led through start-up role-playing exercises before taking classes in core subjects © Charlie Bibby/FT

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When Michael Birdsall’s first child was born he applied for a place on the MBA course at Cambridge Judge Business School. He thought fatherhood necessitated a stable career, perhaps in management consultancy, rather than the freelance home tutoring service he had been providing for the previous eight years.

But he changed his mind when, as part of a research project for Judge’s mandatory entrepreneurship class, Mr Birdsall discovered private English language tuition for Chinese children was a $50bn market. “I thought . . . this is really something,” he says.

Nine months later, in his final semester, Mr Birdsall launched Two Sigmas, an online education marketplace that now connects more than 50,000 English teachers from the UK, US and Australia with Chinese parents seeking one-on-one lessons for their offspring. Users pay $45 an hour for lessons, of which teachers receive about $25. Two Sigmas has been profitable for the past year, and Mr Birdsall is now developing a virtual classroom teaching service.

Business schools are eager to tap into entrepreneurial aspirations. A decade ago just eight schools offered masters degrees specialising in entrepreneurship, according to the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) administrator GMAC. Now there are 39.

The FT 2017 Top MBAs for Entrepreneurship ranking is published today. We have identified 12 criteria to judge the best general MBA programmes for budding entrepreneurs, using data collected for the Global MBA ranking.

These include the percentage of graduates who created their own companies; the percentage of start-ups still operating at the end of 2016; whether those businesses were their graduates’ main source of income and how the school and the alumni network helped set things up. Judge is the highest-ranked non-US institution on the list, behind Stanford Graduate School of Business, MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Babson College’s Olin Graduate School of Business.

Anish Patel chose Stanford because the school is known for encouraging entrepreneurship. “Many of us bounced out of the graduation feeling unstoppable, and that success was inevitable,” he says. His company, ARP Capital, helps other founders exit their ventures and operates a fund to buy established companies that Mr Patel believes he can help grow faster by taking a seat on the board.

Not all investments have proved as easy to grow as first imagined, Mr Patel admits, adding that retaining “a little kernel of that [Stanford] self-belief” has kept him going during the most difficult moments.

His MBA classes have been useful, he says, from core subjects of finance and marketing to so-called soft skills, such as “how to tell your story”.

One of the most influential was “managing growing enterprises” — role-playing exercises led by experienced founders and investors sharing the situations they faced.

One example was playing the recently appointed chief executive of a sewerage business, where an employee had drowned in a cesspool.

The current generation of MBA students wants to start businesses sooner after graduation than older peers did, according to Shailendra Vyakarnam, director of the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship at Cranfield School of Management, which is 43rd on the FT list.

“They want to have fun with a business and then move on to something new rather than necessarily pushing on with relentless growth and upscaling,” Mr Vyakarnam says. But this urge is driven by fear of job insecurity and unemployment, particularly in some southern European countries.

Carlos Espinal, a partner at Seedcamp, a London-based fund for early-stage European tech ventures, completed his MBA at Babson’s Olin school to acquire business skills, having gained his first degree in engineering. It was the order and style of teaching that gave the course an entrepreneurial focus, according to Mr Espinal. Students were led through start-up role-playing exercises before taking classes in core MBA subjects, such as corporate finance.

“The first few months left you with the sense of how start-ups are created,” Mr Espinal recalls. “I remember a day when the entire class was drawing and doodling to get business ideas.”

Mr Espinal’s first job after graduation was with Doughty Hanson Technology Ventures, a private equity firm specialising in investing in early-stage ventures. He turned down an offer to be chief operating officer at a London-based wireless broadband start-up, offering a £50,000 salary.

“I knew that you did not have to be a founder to be involved in start-ups, that being an investor was, in many ways, the other side of the same coin,” he says.

Explore the full ranking and read an
analysis by our data journalists at FT.com/work-careers

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