"Don't you think you've had enough school, dearie?"
That's what Julia Child said to me the one and only time I met her, many years ago, when I was deciding whether or not to enroll in cooking school. She'd asked me a bit about the education I already had, then clearly decided that it was time for me to be told a fundamental truth about the food and wine world.
You don't learn about food and wine by reading about it in books. You learn about it by doing - by digging in the ground and growing the food, by hours on your feet with a knife and peeler and whisk in your hand, by tasting and traveling and tasting some more.
There comes a time to move from reading to doing. To Julia's eyes, that time had come. To my eyes, it was the tipping point in my professional journey as I transitioned from the "academic" (reading) path to the "practitioner" (doing) path.
It's made all the difference in my life as an entrepreneur.
I think of Julia every time I walk into a classroom. I'm on the other side of the desk now, so to speak, as the instructor rather than the student. I teach at various schools around the world, and my students are mainly MBA students in programs dedicated to wine, food, or both. There is also, inevitably, an entrepreneurial motivation within the program and within the classes I'm asked to teach.
But is it worth it? Is it worth it for aspiring food and wine professionals, many of whom are entrepreneurial-minded, to spend many months in the classroom rather than in the field? Haven't they "had enough school, dearie?" Shouldn't they be out there doing?
Here are five "stress test" ways to tell if an MBA program is worth it, particularly within the hospitality industry.
1. You know enough to call an instructor's bluff.
The most robust learning environment, I've found, involve experienced practitioners and students who have worked for some time "in the weeds" within the food or wine industry. They know enough to know which questions to ask, and to call the bluff of anyone who suggests theories ungrounded in their own reality.
It's what makes the Bologna Business School, and their Global MBA in Food & Wine, my favorite place to teach: certainly the instructors understand the theories of hospitality management, but their primary focus is to do hospitality management.
2. You need a deep dive into an industry's unique dynamics.
Naturally MBA programs teach competencies in business and management, first and foremost. Given that foundation, there are also advantages of specialization in order to understand the unique dynamics of the food and wine industry. Every industry needs business practitioners, but it's the ability to live and breathe the industry from within that initiates the most meaningful and lasting innovations.
In the food and wine space, most university programs are either not MBA-based or they select one branch of the industry such as agriculture or wine or hospitality. In Bologna, by contrast, the approach is thoroughly comprehensive. "We look in different ways at the different nature of the whole food and wine industry," said Ludovica Leone, PhD, coordinator of the Global MBA in Food & Wine, "especially the entire supply chain from production to distribution to hospitality to the restaurant."
3. You need an infusion of entrepreneurial DNA.
MBA programs can exist, technically, without entrepreneurial training. In practice, however, that approach compromises the future of the industry. Particularly within food and wine, and particularly in Italy where gastronomic traditions are revered, there is a paradoxical need for innovative business strategies that will sustain the enterprises and enable the traditions to persist. Leone and her team know that this is a challenge especially in Italy where businesses do not excel at scaling up; that's why the MBA program is embedded in the Italian context -- part of its DNA -- but with a global entrepreneurial mindset.
4. Your classmates mirror the global reality.
Which brings us to the fourth "stress test," of diversity of the student body. The logistics of accommodating 50 students a year who come from 40 different countries is a challenge, Leone said (understatedly) but their diversity is a distinct advantage in terms of understanding the future of the business. In my own classes, the perspectives of students from Peru to Nigeria to China to the US, and beyond, cross-pollinate in exceptionally dynamic and even visionary ways.
5. You need a fast ramp-up of industry connections.
Networking. It is an indisputable part of any MBA program. When instructors and guest speakers are also practitioners, they "double" as the people you want to meet anyway in terms of future employment.
I ended up taking Julia Child's advice that day. I learned by doing, by cooking, one carrot, tomato and chicken at a time. But I didn't stop reading, and I enrolled in cooking school too, because the program I chose dedicated a full one-third of its time to hands-on apprenticing in restaurant kitchens. Learning by doing has meant that my life in the food and wine world, and as an entrepreneur, has never been the same.