Hussein Ahmed went to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business to increase his credibility with investors. Photographed at the Berkeley Hotel, London. © Alan Knox/FT

Hussein Ahmed had already founded two companies and sold them for a decent profit when he enrolled on the executive MBA at Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley in 2017. The Egyptian businessman saw the degree as a way to boost his credibility in the eyes of potential investors.

Ahmed, who has a background in computer science, says he had a hard time raising funds for his ventures. “Every time I pitched to investors, they would say, ‘You’re the engineer coding in the back office; who is the one actually running the company?’ I had a chip on my shoulder. I decided to go to business school to get a $200,000 rubber stamp.”

In hindsight, he believes the EMBA was worth the investment. The programme filled gaps in his knowledge of leadership, finance and strategy, which helped him think holistically about business challenges.

It was during the EMBA that he hit on his next idea for a business. Ahmed had worked as a freelance consultant alongside his degree but struggled to access basic financial services because banks did not understand his work. “They thought it was a shell company for money laundering,” he says.

So, in 2018, he founded Oxygen, a financial technology company that offers digital banking services for “free-thinkers, rebels and entrepreneurs” with no monthly fees or paperwork required. Today, the company has 120 employees and 500,000 accounts.

Ahmed is one of a growing number of EMBA students who run their own businesses or are considering doing so. The EMBA traditionally has been seen as a corporate degree, but that is changing. An important driver has been the decline in the number of students being sponsored by their companies to pursue an EMBA, a trend that was triggered by the 2008 financial crisis, when organisations reduced funding for these expensive degrees.

“Once, EMBA programmes were composed of people sponsored by their organisation who were moving up in a big bank or consulting company,” says Lori Rosenkopf, vice-dean of entrepreneurship at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “But more and more people are using the EMBA to really think about the future of their career.”

About 40 per cent of EMBA students at Wharton take courses that focus on entrepreneurship. In common with other schools, data on the rates of business creation and success is patchy. Rosenkopf points to research published in the American Economic Review last year that shows industry experience is a better predictor of entrepreneurial success than youthful exuberance, suggesting EMBA courses are an opportunity for seasoned executives.

“The folklore is all about college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, but they are very rare outcomes,” she says. Among Wharton’s success stories is Marc Lore, an EMBA alumnus who co-founded online marketplace Jet.com, which he sold for $3.3bn to US retailer Walmart in 2016.

At Insead, based in France and Singapore, the proportion of entrepreneurially focused “final projects” — where EMBA students put their learning into practice — has jumped from 12 to 25 per cent over the past five years.

“The students are exposed to different perspectives and ideas, and get excited about the business opportunities they discover in our courses,” says Adrian Johnson, an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at the business school. “They see the EMBA as a safe space to experiment.”

About half of Insead alumni will do something entrepreneurial in their career, though this does not necessarily mean they will leave their employer. Johnson says some students are reluctant to give up well-paid executive jobs and prefer to be “intrapreneurs” in a big organisation.

Insead supports this practice through a new module on commercialising scientific and technological research. The EMBA participants are collaborating with scientists at Cern, the European particle physics centre near Geneva, to help apply their research to businesses. For example, the students saw the potential to use Cern’s machine-learning technology in the anti-money-laundering products developed by CipherTrace, a blockchain analytics company, and brought the two parties together.

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened interest in studying entrepreneurship. “Having experienced the satisfaction of autonomy during lockdown, more people are thinking twice about whether they want to spend the next 20-30 years making money for someone else, or starting out on their own,” says Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley-Haas entrepreneurship programme, which supports students in launching start-ups.

Some 38 per cent of the EMBA students due to graduate from Haas in 2022 have expressed an interest in starting a business. Shrader insists entrepreneurship can be learnt but acknowledges “a lot of entrepreneurship is a contact sport, so it can’t always be taught in a classroom setting”.

The UK’s Cambridge Judge Business School takes advantage of its proximity to the cluster of science and technology companies in so-called Silicon Fen. Its EMBA students can learn from and network with innovators, entrepreneurs and business leaders, who feature as guest speakers, mentors and coaches in the programme.

“You can find other ways to gain knowledge and skills and increase the diversity of your network, but it’s a bit more laid on for you in an EMBA,” says Chris Coleridge, senior faculty in management practice at Judge.

Ahmed sees Haas as the launchpad for Oxygen’s success. Once doubted by investors, he received $40,000 in seed capital from The House Fund, which invests in start-ups coming out of Berkeley, and went on to raise about $40m in total for the company. He also hired three Haas alumni to join Oxygen’s executive team. “I don’t think you need it, but it’s super-helpful to be at the helm of a start-up with an EMBA,” he says.

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