Four questions every entrepreneur should consider before deciding to study entrepreneurship

Person deciding to study entrepreneurship
Get the right information before deciding to study entrepreneurship

Getting the right type of knowledge and advice can be tough for entrepreneurs.  Jeremy Hutchison-Krupat, academic director of the Mater of Studies in Entrepreneurship at Cambridge Judge Business School gives some advice to potential students, particularly those who are interested in either an MBA or Masters in Entrepreneurship.  

Why would students take a Master in Entrepreneurship? What are the key benefits? 

Another way of phrasing this question would be: “Why would students pursue a specialized Masters such as an MSt in Entrepreneurship as opposed to an MBA?” There are two equally important angles from which we need to address this question, the curricular and the community. From a curricular perspective, the answer lies in the degree to which the programme is committed to, and designed around, the needs of entrepreneurs and the practice of entrepreneurship.

Naturally, when a programme is truly committed to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship, it will not be as attractive to prospective students who are unsure of their own interests. In other words, the curricular design will be attractive to students who are committed to entrepreneurship and will not look as attractive to those who are less committed.

To provide more detail, an MSt in Entrepreneurship is (by design) distinctively different from an MBA with a specialization in Entrepreneurship. The MBA gives a broad education in business management in which entrepreneurship features as a small part, (although there is also the option to specialise in entrepreneurship).  The curriculum of the MSt in entrepreneurship, in contrast, is specifically tailored to entrepreneurship.

The MBA is, therefore, more likely to attract a more diverse community of students looking to progress their careers in a variety of functions in companies of different sizes.  The Mst in Entrepreneurship with its curriculum tailored towards start-ups would not cater to such a varied audience. 

Not only is the MSt curriculum arranged around the needs of entrepreneurs, but we also design the entire experience for entrepreneurs. For example, students pursuing an MBA with a specialization in Entrepreneurship will take the same core strategy class as other MBAs, i.e., Corporate Strategy.

In contrast, MSt students will take a course in Opportunities, Business Models and Entrepreneurial Strategy that is specifically geared to an entrepreneur’s needs. The classes are complemented with activities and events (e.g., pitching sessions, and pitch events), which happen outside of the classroom. Additionally, each student is paired with a mentor who is specifically suited to the student’s needs to grow or launch their venture. The focused curricular design combined with the events and mentors together create an environment that facilitates the formation of a strong community of entrepreneurs.

This last point regarding community begins to shed light on why an entrepreneur can yield a greater benefit from an MSt in Entrepreneurship as opposed to an MBA. It may sound like an odd problem to have, yet one of the toughest things an entrepreneur (or aspiring entrepreneur) faces in an MBA programme is having to constantly fend off numerous other job opportunities. Too often I see students who enter their MBA studies with clear aspirations of pursuing an entrepreneurial career, get distracted from the strong pull to more traditional career paths. In contrast, within the MSt in Entrepreneurship, the dominant chatter is centred on who is making progress with their ventures and how they did it.  Temptations to enter an MBA-style career don’t exist.

There is yet another angle from which to address this question, which pertains to the part-time nature of the programme. The MSt in Entrepreneurship is specifically designed to fit the needs of an entrepreneur who is actively engaged in their venture. Mentoring is available throughout the entire duration of the program. The residential portions of the program are short but intense experiences that blend face-to-face interactive learning with knowledge from industry experts and practitioners and further enable network-building through the establishment of strong ties to a close-knit community.

What has led to the growth in number of students pursuing startups rather than corporate careers? 

There are a number of trends driving this.

One driver is the clear linkage between actions and purpose. Specifically, people want greater control over how their actions and efforts translate into something meaningful. This is not necessarily limited to people who want to start social ventures. A clear way to accomplish this is by starting one’s own business.

It is generally recognized that Millennials and Post-Millennials tend to place greater value on social purpose, they would like their actions to have a positive impact on the world. However, many Gen X-ers and even some Baby-boomers have reached a point in their career where they too would like to have a more direct link between actions and outcome. In the end, a common driver here—a characteristic that has driven people to entrepreneurship—is dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Another, somewhat counter-intuitive, trend that drives people towards entrepreneurship is stability. At first glance, stability seems to be a complete misnomer when it comes to entrepreneurship, however, the goal is the ability to have an impact on one’s own destiny.

Take for instance a conversation I recently had with a Nigerian entrepreneur who is passionate about establishing a cocoa farm in his native country. He expressed the fact that he was driven to be an entrepreneur because of his desire for control over his own, and his families, well-being. He was well-aware that entrepreneurial ventures are risky. However, he also recognized that depending on his actions, he had the ability to influence the risk he faced. In contrast, in his view, he did not have this same ability to influence the stability of his employment through a traditional employment path.

Of course, there is also the bandwagon effect. The students who hear of all of the successful entrepreneurs and think that entrepreneurship is the fastest path to achieving everlasting wealth. In other words, people who do not pursue entrepreneurship with another purpose other than to generate wealth for themselves.

What are your career outcomes? Does everyone start a company?  

The real question here is how do we measure success?  This question is related to the one I often hear from prospective students, who ask, “Will you support my venture?” The answer is yes, but not directly. Rather, we will support you so that you can pursue your venture to its fullest.

However, more importantly, we will support and develop you so that if the specific venture you are currently working on fails, you will be prepared to take on the next opportunity. In other words, supporting an individual’s venture does not necessarily imply the right objective for the programme. Through our programme, we seek to provide clarity of understanding, which translates into better performance along all dimensions of an entrepreneurial journey from opportunity recognition through to the growth of a business.

Moreover, even if a student transitions (maybe temporarily) into the role of an employee for another business—large or small—the skills they obtain through the MSt still provide value. In fact, many large organizations are seeking employees who know what it is like to be an entrepreneur. The real challenge is whether an entrepreneur is able to operate within the confines of a large organization and/or is a large organization willing to break some of their “rules” or long-standing norms to allow an entrepreneur to thrive.

To return to the question at hand, though: No, not everyone starts a company, but the large majority are actively trying to do so.  And some may choose to opt for employment until they have built sufficient social or financial capital. 

Are there downsides to starting a business at business school, such as the fees and debt? Can you really teach entrepreneurship? 

The part-time nature of our programme minimizes the opportunity cost to attend and it allows students the freedom to still pursue their venture and/or stay employed. Of course, there are costs, however, these always need to be viewed in light of the trade-off at hand. The question that I am often asked is, “Clearly, I do not need a degree to be an entrepreneur. Why should I pay to get a degree?” To this, I do not pretend to say that an MSt is a prerequisite for being an entrepreneur; clearly, it is not.

There are many entrepreneurs who simply follow a learning-by-doing route. This brings us to the question of whether entrepreneurship can really be taught. The short answer is yes, but it is best taught in concert with a learning-by-doing cycle; a true experiential learning environment. This allows students to reflect on what they are currently learning within the context of what they are doing. It allows for rapid cycles of feedback and iteration with regard to learning and doing, where the learning is guided by clear academic principles and frameworks.

Any debate on whether an academic programme is worth it as opposed to an education in “hard knocks” should include a discussion on selection bias and the survivorship bias. That is, there are many articles and speeches given at seminars, conferences, and/or in the popular press, all of which tell the same war story of an entrepreneur who “succeeded because of their sheer desire and dedication and their ability to focus on the goal and persevere” or those who simply “wanted it more than anyone else.”

However, we do not hear the stories of the 90% who did the exact same thing and failed. In other words, it is not just hard work. It is not just perseverance. Just because one person succeeded once does not mean they understood why. Attribution bias is alive and well: success is attributed to one’s own ability whereas failure is attributed to (bad) luck. All this is to say, sure, a degree is not the only way to succeed, but it could help to provide some clarity around what actions to take and speed up decision-making which ultimately could affect the outcome.

About Jeremy Hutchison-Krupat

Jeremy Hutchison-Krupat is a Senior Lecturer in Innovation & Operations Management. He is also Co-Director of the Entrepreneurship Centre as well as the Director of the Masters of Studies in Entrepreneurship programme at Cambridge Judge Business School.

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