April 04, 2009

"Entrepreneurial MBA - An Oxymoron?" - By Sanjay Anandaram

An increasing number of universities and colleges are offering courses in “Entrepreneurship” as part of their business education. Around the world, business plan competitions are held by academic institutions at regular intervals. The wide publicity given to “entrepreneurship” in recent times has resulted in entrepreneurs gaining respect and being acknowledged as critical participants in a country’s economy, wealth and job creation.

But does taking a course or two in entrepreneurship while pursuing a business degree make one a better entrepreneur? My own view conditioned by many years of experience is that a business degree, with or without courses in entrepreneurship, is not material at all. Then are all these courses useless? Well, no they’re not! They’re useful for learning and understanding multiple aspects of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship but don’t, in any way, make one a better and successful entrepreneur. A small percentage of any population become entrepreneurs while the vast majority become employees. There’s nothing good or bad or right or wrong about this – it is just the way it is and indeed should be as both entrepreneurs and managers-employees perform complementary activities in the growth of an economy.

It is said that entrepreneurship cannot be taught but it can be learned. And what better learning environment than the real world, through interacting with other more or differently experienced entrepreneurs, customers, investors, partners and suppliers?

Entrepreneurship is not a traditional discipline with theoretical constructs unlike say, engineering where one needs to spend many years in a classroom learning the sciences and mathematics. Entrepreneurship is more an art therefore than a science. The study of entrepreneurship offers opportunities for researchers and academics though! One doesn’t, for example, learn swimming from reading books in a classroom but by being in a swimming pool with the help of a coach. But even the best coach in the world will not and indeed cannot prevent the novice swimmer from unintentional and painful swallowing of water the first few times! Without that experience of “drowning”, learning from others and then through rigorous practice, it is impossible to be a quality swimmer.

In countries like India, most students doing their MBA have no or little work experience. Their ability therefore to spot opportunities, appreciate scenarios, develop and leverage relationships is limited compared to those with experience. It also doesn’t help that academic institutions in India are insulated from industry, entrepreneurs and the entrepreneur eco-system.

Yet, why are investors almost always are biased in favour of entrepreneurs with degrees from well known business schools? The reason is that, all other things being equal, the degree is a filter – demonstrates that the holder has passed other stringent selection criteria. It is obviously not perfect. On the other hand, many professional investors and many senior executives in the corporate sector are usually business school alumni so having a degree leads to membership into alumni networks that can be leveraged by the entrepreneur. Business schools teach students to analyse situations and excessive analysis leads to paralysis. Business schools teach students to manage risks. Business schools, however, don’t teach students to take risks while solving problems and addressing opportunities because risk-taking cannot be taught. In real life, decisions are taken with incomplete information with imperfect people being involved. Decisions are taken on a “leap of faith” basis and persevering when all analysis suggests otherwise requires self-belief and conviction. These cannot be taught in a class-room situation. They can only be learnt through experience, introspection and with the help of a mentor.

Now here’s an exercise worth doing. Business school education in the US is about 100 years old and about 45 years old in India. During this time, how many “successful” companies, across all sectors of the economy, were founded by MBA entrepreneurs in either country? “Successful” meaning wealth creators and not lifestyle income-substitution businesses like consultancies. I believe that this number would be a very small fraction.

Keep in mind therefore that while there are many attributes of a successful entrepreneur, having a MBA isn’t one! What do you think?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.