While household names like Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson never went to business school, that doesn't mean you should follow their path.
The idea that aspiring entrepreneurs are wasting their time by attending business school is a misconception that's gained a surprising following.
Proponents of this view often point to the three-year decrease in applications to full-time MBA programs, and they provide a list of successful entrepreneurs who don't have business degrees, including household names such as Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson. One thing these people apparently fail to realize about business, however, is that the exceptions prove the rule.
There's no doubt that most everyone has realized that a college degree is vital. The Washington Post has called it "the new high school diploma," recognizing that, although often unnecessary for performing a lot of work, it has become the price of admission for even entry-level jobs. While this barrier to entry isn't necessarily just, it's a fact, and the effect speaks for itself. In 2015, workers with a college degree were earning 56 percent more than their high school-educated counterparts, and that gap is only widening.
It's also worth noting that a whopping 72 percent of high school students aspire to start their own business someday. And for budding entrepreneurs, having a business degree comes with some perks. I earned a political science degree, but if I had to do it all over again, I would quickly opt for the business school route. In our digital age, this level of entrepreneurship is actually achievable, and an MBA will help lay the foundation in four irreplaceable ways.
1. You can nurture your networking skills.
People tout the connections you make in business school all the time, and with good reason. Learning with a like-minded group of entrepreneurial individuals is an invaluable experience, and these peers and professors will frequently be the ones who can help you achieve your goals down the road when you're running a business.
In addition to the contacts themselves, business school teaches you to foster these connections whenever the opportunity presents itself. Even everyday employees have something to gain from networking, but for future founders, it should be a conscious skill that you hone as frequently as possible. Without a doubt, networking will be essential to your entrepreneurial success.
2. You can fail without losing a fortune.
Many undergraduate and graduate-level business programs aim to allow entrepreneurs to encounter failure when their livelihood isn't on the line. For Dan Lauer, executive director of UMSL Accelerate and founder of Lauer Toys Inc., best known for the Waterbabies line, the University of Missouri-St. Louis's entrepreneurship program is about more than teaching students the soft skills they need.
Lauer explains, "We wanted to show current students what it meant to be an entrepreneur, and part of that was letting them fail in a safe environment." Failure is something every entrepreneur experiences when starting his or her journey, but these small failures rarely make headlines. Consequently, our society has adopted the mistaken idea that the most successful entrepreneurs have yet to take a wrong turn.
3. You will gain technical smarts to match real-world skills.
The business landscape is rapidly evolving, and the formal education you receive in business school will enable you to make smart decisions even when dealing with a certain degree of uncertainty. You'll learn how to handle risk assessment, conduct a cost-benefit analysis, and employ management best practices that will help you become a more effective leader.
While one could argue that you can learn these skills through real-world application (and that's certainly true to some extent), a business degree gives you a solid foundation on which to build this future knowledge. When you're starting a business, you're putting a lot on the line. Having a base of knowledge from business school will help ensure that your endeavor has the best chance possible of reaching its full potential.
4. You can benefit from being a well-paid employee before you're an entrepreneur.
As a would-be entrepreneur, you dream of starting your own business and making an impact, but it's important to realize this doesn't need to happen immediately. Before you start your own venture, you can gain important skills and credibility from working for someone else, resources that will increase in value when you decide to go it alone.
When it comes to getting hired, your MBA is an undeniable asset. A 2018 survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council found that 85 percent of employers are looking to hire a business school graduate this year. A bachelor's or professional degree also pays, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that, over a range of industries, an MBA graduate can earn a wage premium of 36-89 percent. If you're hoping to bootstrap your venture, that extra cash will certainly come in handy.
The visionaries mentioned at the beginning of this article all got by without business degrees, but if you look hard enough, you will always be able to find examples of people who succeeded by going against the grain. Yet for the next generation of entrepreneurial minds, I would argue that the most promising future is to be found in business school.