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Is an MBA Mandatory to Become a Successful Entrepreneur?

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One of the most oft-asked questions to me is: do I think an MBA is mandatory to become a successful entrepreneur? My answer would be a studied Yes and No. The roller-coaster run that I had as an entrepreneur (most do!) was not the result of honing my aptitude and business instincts at a B-school. However, would I have benefited from an MBA at that stage of my career when I had settled on the field I wanted to thrive in? I’d say an emphatic Yes.

At the last conservative count, there were over 3,000 business schools across India, churning out more than 300,000 graduates every year. Recruiters usually draft these graduates as greenhorns – coming as they do, fresh out of the Indian education system – where a break in studies is perceived as a lack of adequate intellect to make the admissions cut rather than a matter of choice. Despite the poor track record of placements over the past years – only 10% of MBA graduates, i.e. the crème de la crème, managed to secure lucrative placements – the MBA still remains the most sought post graduate course across India. However, there is a refreshing new trend that I’m pleased about – graduates preferring to work a few years before applying for a master’s degree in business. I believe that working just for a year or two before applying for a master’s degree is a bit short. On the contrary, applying for an MBA after spending around three to five years in the industry, gaining valuable field knowledge, can significantly boost the value of education sought.

Another key question often posed is what reflects value: A degree called MBA or securing one from a reputed B-school? The jury on that is largely skewed toward “It’s the school that matters.” A degree from an Ivy League B-School is worth its weight in gold because of the exponential experience it offers. These schools largely recruit applicants that have significant work experience. A mixed bag of professionals from various industries interacting in a competitive academic environment usually means a free and invaluable exchange of ideas and experience. These schools are usually like laboratories that encourage lateral thinking, vocational training and skill-development. Two years spent pursuing an MBA in such a stimulating environment and with “case studies” teaching can help you hone your analytic and communication skills and peg your business vision several notches higher. If I had a chance to go back in time, would I choose to avail of such an opportunity? Indeed, I would – because this offers you solid ground and ensures sharper learning. Imagine receiving instant feedback from 50 classmates that slice your hypothesis to the minutiae, keeping you on your toes and well prepared 24/7.

There are several B-schools that have mushroomed across India now, but a key question to be posed is: can they and do they churn out quality human capital that is largely competent and capable of thinking out of the box? Do they focus enough on honing communication skills? Can they tackle any body of knowledge that is ‘out of syllabus’? I suspect not. The curriculum largely follows hypothetical case studies that are disconnected from India’s entrepreneurial realities or industry behavior. Pose a real-time challenge to their graduates, and chances are the majority will wilt before even making it past recruitment. That is my personal view – a harsh one but worth reflection.

An MBA in the Indian context is often a safety net that risk-averse parents insist on for their children. This ensures that, in case the entrepreneurial dreams fail to take flight within a stipulated period of time, there is a Plan B to fall back upon. I believe an entrepreneur should not set out with an already negotiated exit-clause. A successful business venture can never be built by an entrepreneur who has strapped on a safety parachute, ready to inflate and abandon at the first hint of a sharp free fall. This reduces the appetite for risk and increases the scope for failure. It also severely curtails lateral thinking and more importantly the resolve to stay the course – key factors that differentiate successful entrepreneurs from the gaggle of aspirants. Our societal pressures are also unusually higher on a first-time entrepreneur opting to take the more risky non-MBA route to employment.

I believe pursuing an MBA should be a matter of personal choice, not the result of parental or peer pressure. A good education offers a sound structure that makes building an enterprise or a professional career into a disciplined exercise. But do I think it is mandatory? I am an example that years of valuable field experience can offer you the wisdom that you hope to gain at a top notch business school. When you are at a crossroads in your entrepreneurial journey, the call that one takes is often the gut feeling. They don’t teach you how to listen to your gut feeling at B-school, do they?

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