“If I want to start a company, do I really need to go to business school?”
I get this question a lot as a CEO and co-founder who started a company from business school.
The real question, however, should be: “What do I have to do to maximize my chances of success as an entrepreneur?” For some, the answer will mean going to business school, and for others, it won’t. (Editor's note: The author's company funds and refinances loans for business school and other graduate programs.)
For me, business school was the right choice. It proved to be fertile ground to incubate and accelerate an idea.
While I can’t speak for how other entrepreneurs might have benefited from business school, here are the ways that it proved to be a consequential stomping ground to start my company, CommonBond, a marketplace lending platform that lowers the cost of student loans for borrowers and provides financial returns to investors:
1. Professors with world-class esteem and perspective: Despite my never having taken a class with him while at Wharton, professor Adam Grant is an example of someone I have been able to lean on when heading into an important negotiation or reflecting thoughtfully about any resistance the company is facing. Grant is something of a burgeoning national treasure, with the runaway success of his 2013 book Give and Take. But before he began shaping the national conversation on how we think about success, he was Wharton’s highest-rated professor who remembered every one of his students’ names while citing research seamlessly into conversation–-all of which he still does.
2. Alumni who are successful and generous: When Warby Parker co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal came back to Wharton in August 2011 to speak to a hungry, wide-eyed group of students during preterm, his story strengthened and further inspired my desire to build a company with a strong social mission. Following the talk, he was gracious enough to accept an invitation to coffee, and we began an ongoing dialogue. A year later, he opened up Warby Parker’s headquarters in New York City for my company’s first offsite. I could think of no better setting to inspire my team. Our companies share several things in common, not least among them the fact that we have strong social missions.
3. Classmates who become co-founders: A few months into school, I had a finished business plan but no co-founders. I wanted to take CommonBond to the next level and thought co-founders would allow for that. I met Mike Taormina and Jessup Shean, who would become my co-founders, through the normal serendipity of business school and am grateful I did. In professor Ethan Mollick’s entrepreneurship class, I had learned that the optimal number of co-founders when starting a company is three. I also learned that finding co-founders with complementary skills and backgrounds can help you build a company faster and more efficiently. I got to benefit from both of those learnings. Business school is an incredibly conducive place to find high-quality co-founders.
4. Clubs that connect like-minded entrepreneurs: Some of the smartest and grittiest people on campus were active members of Founders’ Club, which brings together people who share the goal of launching a startup. I first learned about the club at Wharton’s Welcome Weekend in April 2011 from Davis Smith, who would go on to become co-founder and CEO of Baby.com.br, one of the most respected startups in Brazil, and is now co-founder at Cotopaxi. Hearing his entrepreneurial story and the power of plugging into an entrepreneurial community inspired me to join the club he founded. The Founders’ Club’s weekly workshop-style get-togethers significantly helped me solidify my entrepreneurial knowledge base and mindset in evaluating good businesses from bad. On the personal side, I am fortunate to call many of my fellow Founders’ Club entrepreneurs both good friends and continual inspirations.
5. Practical resources to get you the extra mile: As part of the Wharton Social Venture Fund--an organization that taught me how to think like a venture investor--I got access to Professor David Wessels’s ingenious ability to turn complex topics into easily understandable pieces. It was also through WSVF that I learned about and was encouraged to attend intensive training sessions on advanced financial modeling and structuring. Between Wessels’s involvement in WSVF and the intensive trainings, I probably learned more about advanced structured finance than I did in any of my courses. A year later, my company closed its first alumni-backed student loan fund. And just this year, we closed our first securitization.
In my experience, business school provided an insanely fertile environment for entrepreneurship. And while business school is by no means a prerequisite for entrepreneurship, it can provide a valuable experience for aspiring or imminent entrepreneurs.