You want your future startup to be a success? Do an MBA.

Thibaud Herr
Nov 9, 2016 · 6 min read

During my search, when I found a startup really interesting and which seemed to be quite successful, while checking who the CEOs were, many times they had an MBA from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton etc…

I was starting to think that there really was a strong correlation between going to Harvard, Stanford, Wharton (…) and founding a company that appears to be successful.

And indeed, there is one.

Of course we can have different definitions for what success is. But I think we can all agree with the fact that unicorns are successful, can’t we?

According to this article, in February 2016, 1 in 4 unicorns had at least one MBA founder. And among the list of 157 unicorns (today there are 201), there were 63 MBA founders.

Not all MBAs are created equal.

Most unicorns with MBA founders have been founded by entrepreneurs coming from Harvard (13), Stanford (7), Wharton (5) and INSEAD (4). So apparently, if you have an MBA from a random, not well-known university, you won’t have more chances to found a unicorn. Sorry.

Now the most interesting part.

Why is a quarter of the unicorns being founded by MBAs from a few prestigious universities/schools? And generally speaking, why does it seem that those MBA founders have more chances to found a successful company?

For sure people graduating with an MBA from Harvard, Stanford and other top universities are smart people. Yet can we say that they are smarter? Smart in a way that would enable them to found a unicorn each time? I’m not sure. Is there something in their DNA that makes them really good at founding unicorns? Maybe. I don’t know.

Is it the education they get in these universities/schools that make them perfect founders? Are Harvard and Stanford giving the keys to founding great companies, like a recipe to follow to make a great cake?

Undoubtedly, Harvard and Stanford teachers are incredibly knowledgeable in their fields. Numerous are the books written by these professors that many great entrepreneurs refer to. (Btw the last one I’ve been reading and that I recommend is The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard teacher). They have such an extended knowledge on certain (and numerous) topics that they can help in a significant way any student coming up with a business idea.

Is it for this reason that so many unicorns are born in those schools? Indeed, one could say that many other universities have very smart and cultivated teachers, yet no unicorns have emerged from there.

To build a unicorn, you need a great idea and a lot of money. Either you already have the money, or you raise funds. Nowadays, the tendency with unicorns is to raise hundreds of millions. Yet before raising hundreds of millions, you start by raising thousands, tens of thousands… More realistic amounts for a business that just started. And everyone knows that the network is super important for those early stages of fundraising.

Raising tens of thousands is probably something reachable for many startups that have a solid idea and team. But when you need to get to the next level, with hundreds of thousands, or millions, it becomes more complicated, for not all Business Angels or early stage VCs can afford to take part in another round of millions of dollars.

Now let’s take a look at this graph from the Washington Post

You see that 10 years after entering school, the median annual earnings of Ivy League graduates is approximately $75k, which is already higher than the 90th percentile earnings of all other schools’ graduates. Ivies are significantly richer. 25% earn more than $120k a year, and 10% reach up to $210k!

And even among the Ivies there’s a huge difference.

Here you can see that Harvard’s median annual earnings ($95k and not $85k, there’s a mistake in the Washington Post’s graph) are significantly higher than Browns’ ($59k). What’s interesting also, is that Stanford sits right in between Harvard and Penn with $86k. That means you have the exact same ranking as mentioned earlier, where I compared schools with the number of unicorn founders graduating from these schools. Is it a coincidence?

We can undoubtedly state that Harvard’s, Stanford’s, Penn’s networks are wealthy. And if you’re a Harvard MBA, that you founded a startup and raised funds, given that your network is wealthier than the others’, you will probably have less pain (as long as you have good results of course) to raise series As, Bs with your network, and even your historical investors, as they have more chances to be wealthy enough for such rounds.

Still concerning the network, as Harvard’s graduates are leading successful companies, you have more chances to get good advice from these successful founders, and to follow best practices, or to be introduced to other industry influencers.

So how can we explain that 1 in 4 unicorn founders have an MBA from a top university? Is it because they are smarter? Because of the education they get in those universities? Or because of their wealthy and educated networks?

I don’t have the answer. Yet I believe it’s a bit of everything. Being smart, which in our society and educational system is synonym for being good in maths or being analytical-driven, is definitely an advantage if you want to launch your business. Having very experienced and smart teachers: also great — you can ask them questions for your business and follow their advice. Same goes with the network and the alumni, that are also quite beneficial for both getting advice and raising funds.

For me one essential thing is missing to create a successful company. Creativity. Indeed, you can be a maths genius, what people define as someone that is very smart, but there is no one single intelligence. Creativity is another type of intelligence. Yet I’m not sure it is something that can be taught in a business school or during an MBA course.

I would love to have the point of view of MBAs from these top universities. If there are any reading this article, I would love to know what you think about it, and especially about what you learn during your courses. Do you think your MBA courses are good for future founders? I mean, everything you learn is good for a future founder, but is it really worth your time? After having watched these teachers in conferences, moocs etc… I would tend to say that it is worth your time, but that’s a point of view from the outside.

Do you feel like MBA courses are boosting your creativity?

I’m looking forward to reading comments from anyone about this topic. I have to say that I am considering applying to an MBA in a year, so I’d love to know what you think.


Startup Grind

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Thanks to Michael Gasiorek.

Thibaud Herr

Written by

Tech, travel, ski and cooking enthusiast | Performance Driven Digital Marketer

Startup Grind

The life, work, and tactics of entrepreneurs around the world. Welcoming submissions on technology trends, product design, growth strategies, and venture investing. Learn more about how you can get involved at startupgrind.com.