A rare window of business opportunity

Having moved from pioneering social networks to finance, Divya Narendra is taking another crack at entrepreneurship – this time via business school

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This time nearly seven years ago, I was in a very different place in my life. After spending a year at Harvard working on a social networking tool aimed at connecting college students, I read an article in our school newspaper about the launch of a competing website called Thefacebook, founded by Mark Zuckerberg. Within two weeks, 80 per cent of my classmates had registered for this new site. Facebook quickly became the darling of Silicon Valley, but the story of its genesis and the nature of Zuckerberg’s connection with the project I was working on has become the subject of a contentious lawsuit, numerous blog posts, a book and a Hollywood film, The Social Network, directed by David Fincher.

As an applied mathematics major in college, I knew I could move into finance after graduation. But after two years as a mergers and acquisitions banker at Credit Suisse and a year as a hedge fund analyst at Sowood Capital Management in Boston, I still felt the entrepreneurship bug from my undergraduate days.

While at Sowood, I came up with a business idea: I realised that the buy-side investment community was lacking a research-focused online platform where analysts could share investment ideas with one another. Given the immense value of a single high-quality investment idea, it came to me that there could be enormous value in a Wikipedia-like database comprising thousands of these ideas. Excited by the potential for this type of idea-sharing forum, which I called SumZero, I decided to take another crack at entrepreneurship.

Pursuing graduate school would give me the chance to continue my education while exploring my start-up idea. Having seen first-hand the complexities of civil litigation, I determined that a JD-MBA (a dual programme combining a law degree and an MBA) was the best way to gain practical business skills and a legal foundation that would help me as an entrepreneur. Northwestern University’s JD-MBA programme was the perfect fit for me, given its selectivity and accelerated three-year time frame.

In the US, law school has a reputation for pushing students to the brink in the quest to teach critical thinking. My experience at Northwestern was no different, but I also befriended professors and practising lawyers who were interested in helping my venture. In fact, one of my professors put me in touch with one of the most powerful technology-focused law firms in the country, which has since represented SumZero on a fee-deferral basis.

I am now in my second year of the JD-MBA course at Northwestern, which has been spent entirely at the Kellogg School of Management. I already knew Kellogg had a strong reputation for general management, but I was pleasantly surprised by the resources it offered to its young entrepreneurs. One of the most powerful of these is the Kellogg Entrepreneurs Organization, where 25 current students who run companies meet to discuss “parking lot” business issues. These range from day-to-day necessities such as hiring salespeople and programmers to the more critical topics of marketing and capital-raising. I have also benefited from the advice of Northwestern’s alumni network. For example, I have had the opportunity to meet Gordon Segal, the founder of the Crate & Barrel homeware chain and one of the most enthusiastic supporters of new venture formation at Kellogg. His business advice on SumZero has been invaluable.

Many of my friends ask why I decided to pursue graduate school after launching SumZero. Although not being able to direct all of my time to my start-up was a risk,

I was confident that, in the long run, graduate school was worth the investment. For one, I have a fair degree of autonomy in my schedule. Although my coursework has been intense at times, it is much more manageable than juggling a start-up with a full-time job. Further, as an entrepreneur, I am under less pressure to obtain straight As and to attend countless company presentations and recruiting events. I can choose how I spend my time to focus on what is best for my entrepreneurial interests.

The way I see it, graduate school – and especially business school – offers a rare window of opportunity to take entrepreneurial risks. If you fail as a start-up founder in graduate school, you still hedge yourself with a degree. Presumably, you will still be able to land interviews with companies that value entrepreneurial spirit and the learning that arises from overcoming setbacks.

The right graduate programme will also offer a support network that can help demystify the start-up process and foster discussion with fellow students, professors and visiting speakers who have had experience launching and building companies. In some cases, this support network might even give you the opportunity to obtain funding from a network of alumni eager to deploy capital into innovative ideas. It would be difficult to find a better laboratory than business school in which to test and develop new business ideas.

Attending graduate school at this point in my life was a no-brainer; when I discovered Kellogg’s three-year JD-MBA programme, I knew it was the perfect opportunity for an entrepreneur like myself to expand on the knowledge and skill set I obtained while working on my college start-up and on my newest venture.

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