In the central west end neighborhood of St. Louis, an IKEA rests in the shadows of massive grain towers. The massive blue-and-yellow big box store marks the eastern edge of the Cortex district and provides a sharp visual reminder of the entrepreneurial renaissance happening in a city once decimated by the rise of suburbia and the fall of manufacturing. “There is no non-coastal city that has an innovation and entrepreneurship community of this scale,” says Henry (Hank) Webber as he walks through the 203-acre district.

Webber is the executive vice chancellor and chief administrative officer at Washington University in St. Louis. He was brought here in 2008 from the University of Chicago by Washington University’s former chancellor, Mark Wrighton, to build Cortex and, essentially, revitalize a once-booming city.

So far, he’s done just that. Since 2002, Cortex has grown to include hundreds of thousands of square feet of coworking space and offices. It is home to more than 350 large and small businesses, about a half-dozen accelerators, some 4,500 jobs, award-winning restaurants, and, soon, a hotel space and apartment complex. 

When it comes to the startup ecosystem in the U.S., entrepreneurial hubs on the coasts have grabbed most of the attention. But middle-of-the-country outposts have been emerging. Schools like Washington University and cities like St. Louis have been doing their Midwest thing and quietly keeping pace with the coastal entrepreneurial pack. In some cases, these tucked-away startup-rich communities are proving that location is secondary to resources, connections, and commitment.

Top 5 schools were the following and the full ranking is listed at the bottom. 

  1. Washington University in St. Louis (Olin)
  2. Stanford Graduate School of Business
  3. Babson College
  4. University of Michigan (Ross)
  5. ESADE 

27 Schools Make Inaugural Entrepreneurship Ranking

Finding them is exactly what we set out to do when we launched our inaugural ranking of business schools with the best entrepreneurship programs for full-time MBAs. So it may come as little surprise that atop the list is the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. From 2016 to 2018, some 20.7% of Olin MBAs launched companies within three months of graduation--more than any other ranked school. Olin also has nearly $1 million in annual funding for student entrepreneurs, and about three of every four MBA students are involved in the entrepreneurship club at the school.

In all, 27 schools made the inaugural ranking. All but three are based in the United States. A familiar school in the heart of Silicon Valley followed WashU as Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business in Palo Alto came in second. MBAs at Stanford have close access to Sand Hill Road and all the venture capital money that comes with it. Between 2016 and 2018, 15.67% of Stanford MBAs elected to launch businesses within three months of graduation. Stanford MBA-founded startups launched in the past five years have raised nearly $1.5 billion in combined venture capital. During that same five-year timeframe, 297 recent Stanford MBA grads elected to launch businesses instead of going to work with the likes of McKinsey, Goldman or Google.

Another well-known entrepreneurial power on the opposite coast from Stanford comes in third. At Babson College, just outside of Boston, 16.63% of graduates between 2016 and 2018 launched companies immediately after graduation. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where 17.33% of MBAs launched businesses right after graduation over the past three years, landed in the fourth spot. Rounding out the top five is Barcelona-based ESADE Business School. 

To measure the best, we first consulted with entrepreneurship directors at some of the world’s best B-schools to come up with an authoritative approach. Those consultations resulted in a ranking that takes into account 10 metrics, including the percentage of electives offered, the number of MBAs focused on entrepreneurship and innovation, the percentage of recent grads to launch businesses while in school or immediately afterward, and accelerator space and mentors available to MBAs. Another key category: published research on entrepreneurship from the school’s faculty.

Thriving entrepreneurship programs within the business school and university space are essential to global economic growth and prosperity. While the debate continues over whether an entrepreneur really needs an MBA to launch a startup, some of the world’s most game-changing ventures are coming out of business schools. 

Companies such as Wharton School-founded Deliveroo and Stanford GSB-founded DoorDash or Harvard-founded Blue Apron have changed the way we get food. Ventures such as Commonbond and SoFi, which came out of Wharton and Stanford, respectfully, have changed personal finance and loan refinancing for millions. Grab--Singapore-based and Harvard Business School-founded--changes the way millions of people in Southeast Asia get around. Startups such as Warby Parker, Harry’s, Rent the Runway, and Stitchfix--all of which were incubated within the walls of business schools--have changed the game in their respective consumer product categories.

Those inspirational success stories continue to drive interest in entrepreneurship among students who choose to incubate their business ideas in an MBA program. At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, two-thirds of 2019 graduates counted entrepreneurship among their academic concentrations, up from half just eight years ago. At schools like Stanford and Babson, 100% of MBAs now take at least one elective course in entrepreneurship, which is a tick up compared to about a decade ago. 

Olin’s Entrepreneurship Rise Coincided with the St. Louis Growth

Back in St. Louis, Washington University basically didn’t have an entrepreneurship program until 2008. The Olin School founded the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2002 but didn’t hire its first full-time entrepreneurship faculty member until 2008 when it enlisted serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist Cliff Holekamp. At the time, Olin had just two entrepreneurship courses--Intro to Entrepreneurship and the Hatchery, the school’s incubator class within the Skandalaris Center.

Since then, Holekamp has pioneered the entrepreneurship program launching 15 entrepreneurship-focused elective classes in 12 years and most recently, entrepreneurship became of the school’s “four pillars” of its strategic plan. “That took entrepreneurship from being a really strong nitch to something every Olin student is going to be exposed to,” Holekamp explains in his office space, T-Rex, another co-working and incubator space in downtown St. Louis that was formerly a furniture factory. “ 

“You can’t opt-out of entrepreneurship anymore,” Holekamp continues. “Every course at Olin has to be accountable for entrepreneurship and innovation.” What’s more, Holekamp says, starting last year, every single course evaluation includes a question asking to what degree entrepreneurship and innovation were part of the course. “That’s big,” Holekamp beams. 

But the ranking--and the point of entrepreneurship in business school--is not just about launching businesses. It’s about creating an entrepreneurial mindset in students that is crucial to corporate innovation. The skills, including adaptability, perseverance, and calculated risk-taking, required to start something new translate well into other business realms, whether inside a Fortune 100 company or a family business. 

That is why the ranking takes a close look at the resources schools devote to the subject. At Stanford, nearly half (47.1%) of all the elective courses are focused on entrepreneurship. Across the Pacific in Shanghai, the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) boasts almost the same amount at 46.8%. Both schools far exceed the exposure to entrepreneurship at rival institutions: Chicago Booth (33.3%), Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business (33.0%), and the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business (31.1%).

Cultivating a strong entrepreneurial environment is also about building a community of students keenly interested in creating and nurturing new business ideas. After all, one of the biggest draws for the full-time residential MBA program, which has been losing its appeal in the U.S., is networking with classmates. At the University of California-Los Angeles’s Anderson School of Management, 83.3% of full-time MBA students during the 2018-2019 academic year were involved in an entrepreneurship club on campus. At Washington University, the rate was 75% and at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the number was 74.2%--slightly higher than MIT’s Sloan School of Management where 69.6% of full-time MBAs were in entrepreneurship clubs last year. 

Creating Campus Hubs for the Entire University 

More than ever before, universities and business schools are pouring money into their own entrepreneurial ecosystems. Gone are the days when MBAs worked on their own, never meeting or engaging with students in other schools and departments at a university. Consider the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship in the middle of Carnegie Mellon University’s campus in Pittsburgh. When Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School opened a new business school building last year, the entrepreneurship center for the entire university was placed in it. The goal: to bring students from all of the colleges across the university to a centralized location to incubate ideas and launch businesses. 

Not to be outdone, The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania--23rd in the ranking--will be opening the doors of a massive entrepreneurship hub next fall. The seven-story, 68,000-square-foot Tangen Hall is Penn’s first dedicated space for cross-campus entrepreneurship and innovation. Besides a Venture Lab, the new digs will boast a virtual reality lab, maker spaces with 3D printers and laser cutters, as well as street-level “pop-up” retail space for student ventures.

Across the country near the shores of San Francisco Bay, the University of California-Berkeley has taken over the penthouse--and other floors--of the city’s tallest building all in the name of multi-discipline student-founded startups. Launched in 2012, Berkeley SkyDeck invests $100,000 in each startup in its program. In seven short years, SkyDeck startups have raised more than $1 billion in funding and have had 11 exits through acquisitions. SkyDeck teams are responsible for Lime scooters infiltrating your city streets and sidewalks, Chirp Microsystems, and 

SkyDeck operates like a full-fledged accelerator space and has grown rapidly since 2014. At the end of 2014, SkyDeck received 50 applications for a spot in its coworking space. The most recent cycle attracted more than 800 applications. Startups using the space have grown from about 20 to more than 140, requiring an expansion to another floor of the building. Advisors for SkyDeck startups have grown to more than 200 from a mere dozen. But the most unique and special aspect to the space is the private investment fund created in early 2018.

“We have a public-private partnership I haven’t seen anywhere else,” boasts Caroline Winnett, a former UC-Berkeley MBA and executive director of SkyDeck. “All we have to do is find the next Google or the next Apple, Genentech, Intel, or you-name-it large company. Our fund invests and follows on through the rounds so if that company is acquired or goes public, no one will ever have to pay tuition to Berkeley again.” 

Of course, it’s not all about raising seed capital and liquidity exits. Entrepreneurship directors say that today’s generation of MBA students are increasingly interested in social entrepreneurship. “The biggest change I’ve seen here over the past 16 years is a real shift amongst students wanting to use entrepreneurship as a means to make an impact through their careers,” says John Stavig, the program director at the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota. 

That’s true at Babson College as well. “I guess I would call it a social conscious or wanting to do something that has meaning and purpose,” says Candy Brush, the vice provost of Global Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson. “They care deeply about things like water or conservation or the environment. They’re coming here to learn business skills to apply to some of those problems. It’s not just achieving an economic outcome--you have to do that in order to sustain an enterprise--but it’s also considering the social implications.”