MBA and Entrepreneurship – does it make sense?

I was asked by someone considering doing an MBA if it was worth it, especially considering that they wanted to start their own business. Here are my thoughts on the worth of an MBA qualification (keeping in mind that this is entirely subjective!).

Thinking about it, why would someone who has a business or business idea want to pursue an MBA? Would it not be a better idea to just spend the time, energy and money that would have been invested on the MBA into one’s own business?

This is the question I was asking myself in 2010 when I came across the MBA programme. I had never really cared much for the title MBA and always considered it something that people used in an arrogant manner. Indeed, the actual title was what put me off from doing it before.

In theory, for me the MBA – especially one that focuses on Entrepreneurship – offered a high-level advanced business degree aimed at increasing the likelihood of  developing or growing a successful business through the acquisition of a vast body of practical, business-related knowledge in the shortest amount of time. In hindsight, I’d say (and I am of course speaking subjectively from my own experience) an MBA focused on entrepreneurship differs from an executive MBA in that it is tailored towards those who are already in business or are thinking of going into business for themselves and thus focuses on entrepreneurial development.

I am originally from Switzerland and educated around the world. I had been in the corporate world for some 13 years working across many countries and different companies. In 2007 I decided to move to South Africa to start my own business. We had achieved early growth, in part due to the enormous potential that Africa had to offer, but I faced challenges in how to grow my business to the next level. I was looking for both the stimulation and knowledge to assist me in shifting gears and to address the gaps in my own knowledge. The aim of me signing up for the MBA was to develop an understanding of how to grow my business with the goal of becoming a leader in my sector (primary healthcare) within Africa.  To achieve this I wanted to get exposure to the methods, ideas, suggestions and experiences that are captured in my business school’s exceptional track record in the field of business education.

In choosing an MBA, age and experience should not, in themselves be a barrier. Indeed, for some programmes they may make you more attractive. But before deciding if an MBA makes sense, there is one question that you need to answer as an entrepreneur: namely if you plan to walk away from your company, or at least in the day-to-day running? Because if you are applying for an MBA, time will clearly be an issue.

My recommendation is almost to forget the business school brand and aim for the business school that teaches what you want to learn and attracts like-minded people. So HBS for me is a no-go because I am an entrepreneur (hence my choosing an entrepreneurship MBA). Choose the school that offers an entrepreneurship programme and ideally one with a focus on the business areas you know (e.g. Stanford for technology?), Babson for Entrepreneurship, GIBS or Stellenbosch for emerging markets, etc.
With regards to the age.. One thing that always put me off doing an MBA was the median age of the participants (with a couple of exceptions of course). In my experience (and it is really subjective) the real value of an MBA programme lies 20% in the academic curriculum and 80% in the experiences that fellow students share during classes. Thus I prefer more experienced business people to young people with just a little experience. That is not to say I don’t value enthusiasm and passion – but I prefer to learn the tricks of the trade of how others do it on the ground. Hence my preference for the likes of Insead and Wharton (generally speaking). As an entrepreneur (we now employ ca. 1.850 people in the primary healthcare sector in Africa) I did the MBA not for the MBA title but to fill the (many) gaps I had in my knowledge. Was it worth it? Absolutely – but to the risk of repeating – the biggest value I derived was the learning from my fellow

I am often asked why I chose to do an MBA in Africa when – given my international mobility and network – I could have chosen any other programme. My response – and one that I would recommend to anyone considering an MBA – is that if you want to do business in a specific geographic region (in my case Africa) then you want to attend a business school that is based there that gives you a localised education as well as network. While some of the subjects covered are international in nature, it makes a big difference when you apply them in an African context. In addition the experiences and stories you learn from your fellow students are invaluable.

So, is the intense pressure, hectic schedule, logistical hassles and steep learning curve paired with enormous sacrifices worth it? In my opinion the answer is a resounding yes and I have no reservation in recommending the programme to those who – like me – represent a more ‘mature’ (I am 39) student body.


By York Zucchi, Investor and Entrepreneur in Africa in the primary healthcare sector and MBA Alumni from GIBS (South Africa)

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