Larry Weintraub knows all too well how tough it is for a small business to compete with the major players while recruiting at business schools.
Not long ago, he was encouraging a UCLA MBA student to take an internship with his social media marketing company, Fanscape, which is based in Los Angeles. Weintraub was even eyeing the student for a full-time position once he graduated. When it came down to it, though, companies like Disney and Universal were offering the student high-paid internship opportunities, and considering the staggering amount of debt most MBAs accrue, the student just couldn't pass up the cash.
"Part of his choice was not only the name, but also the money," Weintraub says. "I don't have that caliber of a name, and I certainly can't pay anything close to a big company like that."
While money and status may be important, especially at top business schools like UCLA, they're not the only bargaining chips small business owners have when they're recruiting top talent.
Rebecca Hollander is senior associate director of MBA career management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She says, in recent years, interest in entrepreneurship among Wharton students has grown dramatically.
"I think there's a certain reality of student life, but what I see from this incoming generation of students is they're aggressive in their goals," she says. "If they're dedicated to entrepreneurship, that's something they're going to pursue no matter what."
We've rounded up 10 tips for small business owners who want to break into the big leagues.
1. Familiarize Yourself With the Student Profile.
Don't waste time recruiting students who aren't a good fit for your business. Every school has its trends and strengths, so get to know which schools are producing the future powerhouses of your field by doing online research and talking to the career services office. When you can offer students something they actually want to do, you get an automatic leg up on the competition.
According to Nicole Hall, the Malibu-based president of MBA Career Services Council, 'It has everything to do with how the needs and interests of the business fit with the profile of the students at that school.'
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2. Become a Guest Speaker.
You may not be able to get on the recruiting schedule at the top business schools in the country, but you can still increase your visibility to students by getting into the classrooms. Seek out the business schools with strong entrepreneurship programs, courses and clubs and ask to speak in a class, become a mentor for the club or participate in panel discussions.
Hall says, "We've found that it's been instrumental to have alumni and professionals from the industry come in and volunteer to be a classroom speaker," adding that just because students are studying entrepreneurship doesn't mean they plan to start a business right after graduation.
"For a small business owner, it's very viable for them to find someone who can join their firm and stay there for several years before they move on to another stage in their careers," Hall says.
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3. Judge or Sponsor a Business Plan Competition.
Watching students compete and defend their business plans is one of the best ways to see them in action. You might not be able to recruit the winners - they'll be the ones walking away with startup capital to launch their own businesses - but you'll have direct access to the runners up and other qualified candidates.
According to Hall, "Those are events that usually 300 or 400 people would come out to, depending on the school. It'd be a good blended audience of students, alumni and job seekers."
At the very least, it's a networking opportunity that might prove crucial in getting student referrals.
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4. Take Part in an MBA Consulting Program.
Schools around the country welcome business owners, both large and small, to take advantage of MBA consulting. You can take your business problem to a class, and for the duration of the course, a group of students work on solving whatever the issue is. Typically, it's free to the businesses and offers business owners invaluable access to students.
Hall is also executive director of the alumni and career Services office at Pepperdine University, where she says, "We've done it very successfully with a number of small business owners, and for them, to have this extended team of 30 MBAs looking at a problem they're facing is instrumental."
Weintraub has taken Fanscape issues to Pepperdine's education to business program, and he now has three Pepperdine MBA graduates working on his team full-time.
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5. Get Targeted Referrals.
No matter how much time you spend at a school, there's something to be said for getting personal referrals. Hall says there are two ways to approach recommendations. Start with the career services office, and if they can't give you a solid student referral, they'll at least be able to point you in the direction of a professor.
"Entrepreneurship faculty are keenly aware what students are looking for and whether they might be a fit," Hall says. "If companies can forge relationships with the faculty, that can really help, particularly in a large school, where you might not be able to get into structured campus recruiting."
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6. Leverage Your Alumni Networks.
A little alumni favoritism never hurt anyone, especially when you're the one it favors. Hall recommends getting in touch with your own alma mater to see what new talent is popping up.
"We've created a lot of synergy with professional development events for alumni that we promote with the students early on, encouraging them to become active with the alumni network," she says.
Not only will you be somewhat familiar with the education the students have received, but the schools, themselves, are more likely to be receptive and welcoming to their own alumni.
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7. Find Schools With Funding.
If, like Weintraub, you're unable to offer prospective interns and hires the same amount of money that the large corporations can, there are some schools out there that offer students a stipend when they take a position in an entrepreneurial setting.
Hollander says Wharton is one of those schools. Their annual Entrepreneurial Intern Fellowship program supplements student salaries to cover whatever sum of money they might not be receiving for a given internship.
"If you feel, as a small business owner or manager that you have resource needs, don't make any assumptions about what students want or don't want," she says, adding that all career services offices offer different programs, and it's worth checking out what options are available to you, before you get discouraged.
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8. Work With the Schools That Work With you.
The fact is, no matter how hard you try, some schools may still be impenetrable. In the long run, though, it's better to invest your time and energy in a school that's going to be welcoming.
Weintraub, for instance, has built a solid relationship with Pepperdine, and he says he doubts he could find more qualified candidates anywhere else.
"Should I make the effort to go to a top 20 school when I'm going to strike out more often than not because of the competitive landscape?" he says. "At Pepperdine, I feel like we're wanted. Pepperdine is aggressive, and they invite me and my company into things."
In the end, Hall says, "The MBA degree is strong, and sometimes you're in the best position if you invest regionally and work with schools in your local market."
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9. Be Kind to Your Interns.
Every business owner knows how important word of mouth can be in finding new customers, but it's equally important in finding new employees. One bad review of a boss or working environment can make its way around a school, so make sure you don't leave MBA students who intern for you with a bad taste in their mouths.
"Positive internship experiences definitely spread quickly, so that's a way to increase interest and response over time," Hall says. "Just consistently post internships with the school to create some visibility."
Weintraub makes a point of telling interns on their way out that he will personally write them recommendations if they need them. "I was an intern at one point and my business partner was an intern back in the day," he says, "so we know how important that is."
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10. Talk up the Working Experience.
When all else fails, small businesses have something that Wall Street banks and high-powered law firms just don't. That is, they can offer recruits a broader range of responsibilities and access to the company.
"For some MBAs, if they're going to have a great story to share on their resume of all the accomplishments and skills they've developed, that's going to be very attractive," Hall says.
Hollander agrees. She says the small businesses that have been able to successfully land Wharton's top talent are the ones who can give students a clear road map as to what they'll be doing and why it's essential to the company.
"It's about offering the right role, responsibilities level and a little bit of mentorship that makes it a compelling opportunity for a student," she says.
In practice, Weintraub has found this tactic to be his secret weapon, as well. "If you're an intern here, you have full access to my company. You work directly for myself, the senior execs and you have high-level projects with real deliverables," he says. "You can actually touch and feel very intimate details of the company and help us grow."
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