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Hidden Ways to Learn From Other People's MBAs

Should an entrepreneur get an MBA? That's up for debate. But your business could benefit from working with the best and brightest at business schools.
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"When it comes to success in business, an MBA degree is optional," said Christine Comaford, a corporate strategy expert and bestselling author. "But a GSD, which is only earned by Getting Stuff Done, is required."

This quote pretty much sums it up. The debate on whether getting an MBA is worth the time, money, and energy is ongoing, with people typically agreeing that entrepreneurs are arguably among the group of businesspeople who need business degrees least. Like Ms. Comaford, I have never believed that an MBA was required for business success--in fact, some of the most successful CEOs I know don't have one.

However, whether they have an MBA or not, chances are, these CEOs are recruiting MBAs. Why? Because regardless of which side of the debate you're on, there's no denying that some of the brightest and most driven people are lured by MBA programs--and no, I'm not just saying that because I attended the Harvard Business School.

This is why I encourage astute entrepreneurs to figure out strategic ways to make other people's MBAs work for them--whether they have one themselves. Here are some suggestions on how to find the right match:

1. Make pro-bono team consulting good for everyone involved.

My company's experiences with HBS's Immersion Experiences Program and Kellogg's Neighborhood Business Initiative have been phenomenal. To gain field-based experience and apply what they have learned firsthand, MBA student volunteer teams are paired with businesses and communities to provide consulting services during the course of an academic term.

To really reap the benefits, businesses must commit to not only identifying a critical business question for which they need help on making a strategic decision, but they must also offer the students the guidance needed to truly get something out of it.

For example, a Kellogg team offered cutting-edge recommendations that helped us prepare for the launch of our newest wine brand, the House of Mandela, in the U.S. market. And an HBS team provided us with actionable recommendations for extending one of our top brands into a new product category. The latter group also got the opportunity to travel to South Africa, under the guidance of leaders from our company.

2. Offer immersive internships to business-school students. 

Opportunities to work one-on-one with an MBA student or recent graduate can also be invaluable. Most business schools--some that come to mind are Stanford, Wharton, and Stern--have established internship programs, including increasing opportunities for students to focus on entrepreneurial opportunities. Correspondingly, many large companies are known for their established and competitive MBA internship programs, and leading nonprofits have also been gaining more attention for theirs as well.

There is no reason for small businesses not to take a seat at this table! Again, the key is to ensure that you can commit to offering the mentorship, advancement opportunities, perks, and work culture that allow you to compete with the bigger players...particularly if you can't offer similar compensation. And remember--many people pursue MBAs in order to switch careers. Because they are craving meaningful experiences in their target field or industry, they are often willing to go above and beyond (sometimes for free) to prove their worthiness.

My experience has been that sometimes people are intimidated by MBAs, or have had a bad work experience with a newer grad who may have overestimated their book smarts and not been adept at translating them to real-world settings. I've also experienced MBAs who "put on airs" or feel that their experiences are inherently better than those of people without business degrees.

That's par for the course for recruiting on any level. This is why I encourage fellow entrepreneurs to resist throwing the baby out with the bathwater and invest the time to investigate such business school programs--especially at schools that are located in your area. These are just a couple of examples of ways to leverage MBAs--I'm sure once you start digging, you'll find even more!

Last updated: Jul 25, 2012

SELENA CUFFE | Columnist | President and CEO, Heritage Link Brands

Selena Cuffe is the president & CEO of Heritage Link Brands. Previously, Selena served as a marketer for the Council on International Educational Exchange and the Procter & Gamble Company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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