Tom Castelloe, who has launched several businesses, earned an MBA from the Love School of Business at Elon University in 2006. He's also one of many entrepreneurs who don't recommend a graduate business degree unequivocally to aspiring business owners, particularly those without deep pockets.
"Start the business first," he says. "Jump in the water and try to swim."
Budding entrepreneurs who do choose to apply to business school should consider public schools that are less expensive, says Castelloe, who spent less than $20,000 on his Elon degree. "I chose to get an MBA because I thought at the time that it would open doors for me," he says. "It hasn't particularly."
Only those whose employers are paying for their MBAs should go to business school, says Eric Nagel, the president of an eponymous marketing firm. "Entrepreneurs need to save all the money they can," says Nagel, whose employer covered his University of Phoenix MBA.
[Check out the top business schools for entrepreneurship.]
Entrepreneurs who haven't gone to business school have long voiced the opinion that those who want to follow in their path need not get an MBA.
"My grandfather referred to me as having an MBA from the School of Hard Knocks, whose official colors are black and blue," wrote Stephen Greer, an entrepreneur whose lack of an MBA didn't prevent him from founding and selling a $250 million scrap metal recycling company.
Even business school deans express skepticism about the recipe that calls for stirring entrepreneurship and MBA coursework.
"You don't want to have a school of business that's only entrepreneurship. You still would have to teach accounting, marketing, and operations," says Paul Danos, who has served as dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College for 17 years.
MBA students often believe they can hitch a ride on the Mark Zuckerberg fast track to success, Danos says, but there's only one genius behind each entrepreneurial venture. "Sometimes you get a Facebook; 99 percent of the time it doesn't work," Danos argues.
[Read about the momentum entrepreneurship is gaining at b-schools.]
At Tuck, a "small percentage" of recent graduates start their own businesses, but about half of the school's alumni are entrepreneurs two decades after graduation, according to Danos. "We have entrepreneurship, but it comes a little later in life, when they have more experience, more money, and more networks," he says.
At the Booth School of Business at University of Chicago, entrepreneurship is the fastest growing MBA concentration, says Sunil Kumar, the school's dean. But Kumar echoes Danos's caveat that most entrepreneurs fail.
"Entrepreneurship, in general, is a field where news is made not by average performance but by the few people in the extreme right tail," Kumar says. "We wouldn't measure the quality of a hospital that way, for example, where we would say that the quality of the hospital depends on the three best surgeons' single greatest surgery."
Entrepreneurs who think there's a zero-sum game between launching a business and earning an MBA should consider that business school can teach them the fundamentals and the business language that their potential investors speak, Kumar says.
"In a field where the likelihood of success is relatively small, any advantage you can get you should take advantage of," he says.
Earning an MBA from the Business School at Columbia University in 2007 helped Hayward Majors leave his law job to launch CollegeSolved, an admissions consultancy.
"I am not sure I would have ever launched a new business had I not gone to CBS," he says. "Lawyers are risk averse, so it was very helpful to get the tools in business school in order to take the leap."
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