5 Things Entrepreneurs Should Know Before Starting An MBA

Entrepreneurship is a buzzword among top MBA programs. Administrators are pouring significant time and resources into entrepreneurship curriculum, business plan competitions, and on-campus venture accelerators. It seems that admissions directors want to attract the next Jake Schwartz (Wharton alum, founder General Assembly), Tristan Walker (Stanford alum, founder Walker & Company), or Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman (Harvard alumnae, founders Rent The Runway).

Historically, entrepreneurs and MBAs have not been viewed as being one and the same. This Business Insider piece eloquently captures the dilemma:

“There’s an old Silicon Valley stereotype that MBAs are stiff, corporate types who you bring in to help grow your business but who lack the vision or creativity to starting something worthwhile of their own.”

As someone who launched three ventures before starting my MBA (but lacked the hardcore business acumen to scale any of them), I am a strong advocate of the MBA for entrepreneurs especially those who were not born into prominent networks or who may face institutional and structural barriers to accessing capital in the mostly white, mostly male world of Silicon Valley.

Whether you have a brilliant idea you want to test and bring to market in a low-risk environment or if you already have a company that you want to scale after gaining additional skills and expanding your professional network, I’ve compiled this list that can come in handy to entrepreneurs considering an MBA.

1. Finding Recommenders During The Application Process

As an entrepreneur entering an MBA program, you’ll need to get creative with your letters of recommendation. Unlike the majority of your classmates who will be asking their direct supervisor or manager for a letter, you probably don’t report to a traditional “boss” because * newsflash * YOU are the boss. Some ideas for recommenders include:

- clients/customers
- partners/co-founders
- investors
- mentors familiar with your venture
- suppliers

I managed my own consulting practice for 5 years prior to business school and I spent 4 years running a youth development nonprofit I co-founded in Uganda. For my letters of recommendation, I utilized two clients:

- one was the Editor In Chief of a fashion magazine I consulted with in East Africa on a 1 year marketing and strategy project
- the other was the Managing Partner of a law firm I consulted with on a long-term strategy and operations assignment.

Plan ahead and give your recommenders plenty of time to complete their letters. I gave my recommenders three months notice and conducted regular check-ins to make sure they were on track and fully understood the deliverable. It may be worthwhile to set deadlines that are 1–2 weeks ahead of the school application deadline so you are not stressed out for last-minute recommendations that you have little control over.

Instruct your recommenders to speak to your management style, the value proposition of your business as well as their perception of your performance and the results you delivered through your company.

2. Verifying Employment Once You’re Admitted

Congrats! You’re in! Now, it’s time for you to verify all that awesome stuff that made your application so compelling. Again, unlike the average incoming MBA who will list the contact information of their company’s HR department to verify employment, you will need to dot your I’s and cross your t’s. Make sure your financials, incorporation documents and other relevant documentation are all readily available in case the administrators of your program request verification of your ownership in your company. Having a website is not enough. You need to make sure you are on point with all your documents.

3. You Bring a CEO’s Perspective To The Classroom

If you’re entering an MBA program having already launched a company, you are special. You’ve done what a lot of people will never have the courage to do. You dove headfirst into a start-up that you were passionate about. You have lived the dream of business ownership! Your high risk tolerance makes you a rare gem in the world of MBAs where so many people are hedging their bets, making back-up career plans and spending the money they’ll make once they snag that investment banking job on Wall Street.

If you’ve ever ate cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner because a client was late on an invoice payment, you feel where I’m coming from.

Entrepreneurship may seem sexy but it is a hard, long and sometimes lonely path. I can’t tell you how many sleepless nights I had when I first started my nonprofit in Uganda. I took my fair share of financial risks while bootstrapping that company. Ultimately, the company failed after 4 years of awesome work. This was the motivation I needed to address my skills gaps and apply to business school.

These stories and entrepreneurial war wounds make for compelling content that add tremendous value to an MBA classroom. When analyzing cases and addressing issues that will arise in classes like operations, strategy and marketing, you’ll bring a CEO’s perspective into the classroom. My advice is to emphasize this strong value proposition in your MBA applications and interviews. Then, once you get to campus, go ahead and flex. Raise your hand and share your journey (failures and successes) with your peers and professors.

4. Avoid Peer Pressure & Know Thyself

Bankers, consultants, and brand managers are everywhere in b-school. Everywhere. That’s fine, if that’s your journey. But, if you want to go to b-school to gain the skills and network to start or scale your company, don’t get enticed by the dollar signs that come with those “sure thing” job offers. At the end of the day, you know how important your business is to you and you have to keep your eye on the prize. Different people have different prizes in mind and that’s cool as long as you are staying true to yourself. Don’t compromise. Don’t settle for less.

Before we started at Wharton and Duke, my business partner, Nicole, and I had a sobering conversation. Not only did we discuss equity split for our venture but we also agreed on a baseline level of commitment to mbamama.com during the first year of our MBA programs knowing we both intended to recruit for jobs in finance (me) and consulting (her).

If you want to work on your start-up and simultaneously pursue jobs in popular industries like tech, finance, brand management, or consulting; take it from me — IT IS TOUGH! Like, insanely tough. But, possible. Very, very possible.

It is important to clarify how your venture fits into your career trajectory if you decide to recruit because some firms frown upon this double-dipping. They may question your ability to commit to their company. But, on the other hand, some firms will love that you’re a go-getter who has managed to balance recruiting with academics and running a business during your MBA.

Personally, I’ve been pursuing entrepreneurial finance careers in venture capital and private wealth management and during my touch points with prospective employers, I’ve definitely focused on the traction I’ve gained with MBA Mama over the past 6 months to demonstrate my potential for success and differentiate myself from other people.

I will admit that deleting some of the consulting recruiting emails were hard. If I’m keeping it 100% honest, Bain had some of the best lunch spreads I’ve ever seen in my life. They really lay on the charm during recruiting season and the perks of the job piqued my interest. After 5 years managing my own consulting practice before b-school, targeting an associate role at a big 3 consulting firm would have made sense and certainly would be a lucrative path. But, I knew consulting did not align with my vision for my life or my plans to grow MBA Mama.

Whatever your path, stick with it and don’t succumb to peer pressure.

5. Your Dreams Are Valid

I’ve met a lot of well-intentioned people at Wharton who question the validity of my path, the viability of my venture, and the methods I’m utilizing to grow the MBA Mama brand. At the end of the day, I know my dreams are valid. When I look in the mirror, I am the only person who has to live with my decisions which is the great thing about life. None of us are the same. What the hell would I look like trying to live someone else’s version of success? As my grandma would say, I’d look like a “plum fool” which basically means, I’d look like an idiot.

If you find yourself facing a lot of resistance from new friends in your program, it could be that people genuinely think your idea sucks. Or they may be projecting their own fears and insecurities on you. It’s also possible that you’re doing a shitty job communicating your vision when you explain your business idea. Whatever it is, use the resources available to you and keep pushing towards making your entrepreneurial dreams a reality.

As I write this, I am excited about the possibilities for my future and the future of the MBA Mama brand. I hope more entrepreneurs apply to b-school. Two cheers for innovation and disrupting the status quo!

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