M.B.A. Students Shift Focus Toward Entrepreneurship

A recent study shows there's an increased demand for entrepreneurship-focused classes.

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Whether the lingering effects of the global economic crisis or the changing job market are to blame, more M.B.A. students have shifted focus from finance or consulting toward entrepreneurship. In the study "Tomorrow's M.B.A. 2011," education marketing and research specialist CarringtonCrisp takes the pulse of prospective business school students and has identified a growing demand for entrepreneurship in the M.B.A. curriculum. According to a survey of 476 prospective M.B.A.s in 79 countries, entrepreneurship is now in the top five most sought-after areas of course content.

Anyone can have a good idea, but it takes certain know-how to turn that idea into a profitable venture; entrepreneurs need a broad skill set to manage the range of tasks required for success. With flatter corporate structures, those still working while doing their M.B.A. recognize that a move sideways into a different type of project may be the best way to climb up the ladder, say the study's authors.

[Read about the improved job market for M.B.A.s.]

When asked what they want from a business school and an M.B.A., about 60 percent of respondents say they want a degree that will improve their career prospects. The second and third choices—a degree that will provide new skills and challenge me to think differently, respectively—provide further evidence of the rise of entrepreneurship, the study contends.

Andrew Crisp, one of the report's authors, says the downturn in financial hiring in recent years has forced students to look at other professional options. "Whether they want control of their own careers by starting their own business or recognize the need to be able to manage a variety of projects in a large business in order to move up in their careers, entrepreneurship skills are increasingly valuable."

It's too soon to tell whether this is a longer-term trend away from large organizations, but the study points out that entrepreneurship is popular even among part-time M.B.A.s, suggesting that the skills of enterprise are valuable as much when setting up a business as they can be within an existing business.

[See how M.B.A. programs are focusing on project management.]

Admittedly, some of the most successful entrepreneurs did not go to business school, and the top programs maintain that they don't actually create entrepreneurs; they nurture innate ability. Harvard Business School, which has a mission of infusing the "leadership perspective with an entrepreneurial point of view," says that at its best, a business school should act as an "incubator of ideas" and a place where students can test their business ideas in a risk-free environment.

All first-year M.B.A.s at Harvard take a required course in entrepreneurship, and the school notes that by 2008, nearly 50 percent of its M.B.A. graduates were becoming entrepreneurs by their 15th reunion.

Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College is another school offering varied entrepreneur-focused options. The school consistently ranks No. 1 in entrepreneurship in U.S. News's Best Business Schools and in Entrepreneur magazine, and its campus is designed as a living laboratory where students and faculty experiment, improve, and evolve how to teach the entrepreneurial process and foster entrepreneurial mindsets.

Babson also offers the Entrepreneurship Intensity Track (EIT), a two-course elective series for those who are planning to launch a business upon graduation. Applicants interview with two entrepreneurship faculty and pitch to a pool of potential mentors, and final selection is determined by a mentor who believes the student and the opportunity represent a viable business venture. More than an academic discipline, the school views entrepreneurship as a way of life that runs throughout the curriculum and co-curricular activities.

[Read more about M.B.A.s and leadership.]

Another leader in this area, the MIT Sloan School of Management, offers an Entrepreneurship & Innovation Track (E&I) within the MIT Sloan M.B.A. program. The track focuses on launching and developing emerging technology companies and is designed for M.B.A. students with a strong commitment to entrepreneurship. It leads to an MIT Sloan Certificate in Entrepreneurship & Innovation in addition to the M.B.A. degree, and the payoff for the extra work, intense track requirements, and fewer options for electives is a jump start on an entrepreneurial life, the school contends.

Who could have predicted that the financial meltdown would actually open more doors for M.B.A.s, who are applying their skills beyond finance to an even broader job market? Whether out of necessity or simply the desire to be one's own boss, it seems the state of the economy has ushered in an age of entrepreneurship.

"Entrepreneurship in people and society is vital for future competitiveness," says Eric Cornuel, director general and CEO of the European Foundation for Management Development, which cosponsored the study. "From new venture start-ups to the largest companies, having entrepreneurial skills mixed with the core components of an M.B.A. enhances the value of the qualification for both students and employers."