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A Harvard M.B.A. Means Nothing to Investors

That, at least, is one prominent investor's opinion.
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For entrepreneurs, is an M.B.A. a waste of time and money? Not long ago, Cliff Oxford, a three-time Inc. 500 entrepreneur, asserted that it was, unless you went to Harvard or Stanford. At those schools, he argued, the alumni networks were worth the price of admission.

But last weekend, a well-known startup investor broke some bad news to the aspiring entrepreneurs of Harvard Business School. That investor is none other than Chamath Palihapitiya, the founder of the venture capital fund Social+Capital Partnership, as well as an original member of Facebook's management team and co-owner of the NBA's Golden State Warriors.

Palihapitiya's message was simple: HBS grads are at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting capital. "It's really unfair to you guys, but I think you're discriminated against now," he said at a conference organized by HBS's venture capital and private equity club, as reported in The New York Times. 

Referring to other venture capitalists, he added, "I would bet a large amount of money that the overwhelming majority of us would not look favorably on a company started by one of you."

Palihapitiya's proclamation made headlines, but is he correct? Let's take a deeper look at what he said.

What the Numbers Say 

He didn't say that HBS grads could not get venture capital, only that "an overwhelming majority" of investors these days look unfavorably at the HBS pedigree. 

I reached out to HBS for an official response and some statistics about recent grads who had gone on to found venture-backed companies. I'll update this post with those numbers as they become available.

Meanwhile, Kristen Raymaakers, HBS's assistant director of communications, pointed me to a top 100 list of M.B.A.-founded startups ranked by funding amount, courtesy of Poets & Quants.

There were 11 HBS alums in the top 25. Their companies had all been founded between 2008 and today, and had received from $13.5 million to $450 million in funding. 

Of course, that doesn't mean Palihapitiya is wrong. The only exhaustive way to prove or refute his point would be to find out, somehow, if investors passed on or downgraded these or other companies on the basis of the founders' pedigrees. 

Whether an M.B.A. Is Worth It

Here's one certainty: A significant majority (27 of 39) of companies with recent $1 billion valuations did not have M.B.A. founders. That's according to Fortune's Dan Primack, who wrote yesterday about Palihapitiya's comments. Primack used Aileen Lee's list of "unicorns"--39 tech companies founded in 2003 or later with valuations of at least $1 billion--to compile his numbers. 

Which means that "Palihapitiya could have made the same comments at any other business school in the world," notes Primack. (Of the 12 companies whose founders had M.B.A.'s, two came from Harvard--the founders of Zynga and Gilt Groupe.) 

After digesting all this, I sent a tweet to Palihapitiya (@chamath). I asked: If M.B.A.'s are being "discriminated against" by many investors, would you advise entrepreneurs, then, to avoid business school?

His reply: "I would advise everyone to learn to code. What you do afterwards is your own moral hazard."

IMAGE: Shutterstock
Last updated: Feb 11, 2014




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