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The Best Degree for Start-up Success

A new white paper asserts that if you want to build a company, an advanced degree in a subject like engineering beats an MBA any day.
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So you want to start a company. You've finished your undergraduate degree and you're peering into the haze of your future. Would it be better to continue on to an MBA or do an advanced degree in a nerdy pursuit like engineering or mathematics? Sure, tech skills are hugely in demand and there are a few high-profile nerd success stories, but how often do pencil-necked geeks really succeed in business? Aren't polished, suited and suave MBA-types more common at the top?

Not according to a recent white paper from Identified, tellingly entitled "Revenge of the Nerds." The company, which analyzes Facebook profiles, combed through its database, culling information on the profiles of CEOs and founders to see what path they took to entrepreneurial success. The result: Three times as many had advanced degrees in engineering than had an MBA. When it came to company leaders with only an undergrad education, the number with degrees in business and engineering was about evenly split.

The company also found that the age of founders is falling. In 2008 the average was 36. This year is was 33. And while 90 percent of the profiles analyzed were for U.S.-based entrepreneurs, that doesn't mean the founders and CEOs were originally from the U.S. The Institute of Technology Bombay, Canada's University of Waterloo and China's Tsinghua University joined perennial American favorites Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley, CalTech, and Carnegie Mellon among the most common training grounds of top engineers.

So why are nerds triumphing these days? Identified speculates that the boy king of Facebook may deserve some credit:

Perhaps the widely chronicled nerd-inspiring story of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg–the fact is that more engineers are striking out on their own to launch new endeavors, particularly in the IT, social and mobile industries. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, 2011 saw "an across-the-board increase in the rate of entrepreneurial activity has not been seen in the U.S. in the last ten years," and "the majority of entrepreneurs were motivated by improvement-driven opportunities to start new ventures."

Increasing doubts about both the value of MBAs and their creativity-destroying side effects may also be partly to blame, as could the increasingly technical nature of many of the fastest growing business sectors. But whatever the cause or causes, the nerd-ward shift in business is significant, according Brendan Wallace, co-founder of Identified. While MBAs used to employ engineers, now engineers more often hire MBAs.

"It will be interesting to see what kind of implications this will have on the business world and the economy overall," he says.

What ramifications is the rise of the nerds having on business culture and structure? Has "revenge of the nerds" hit your company?

Last updated: Feb 2, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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