Executive MBAs Catch The Startup Bug

Wharton EMBA Munish Dayal with his startup co-founder Laurenne Resnick

Wharton EMBA Munish Dayal with his startup co-founder Laurenne Resnik

Another sea change  – this time a positive one – is coming to the Executive MBA. It represents an evolution that parallels the transformation underway in full-time MBA programs, and it expands education and career opportunities for working professionals.

For EMBA students, the U.S. recession triggered an unwelcome shift in the funding for the degree. Data from the Graduate Management Admission Council shows the percentage of employers paying a share of EMBA costs dropped from 34% in 2007 to 28% in 2014. However, while paying for an EMBA has become more onerous for many students as company support dries up, changes within top EMBA programs are bringing the degree into step with the most striking recent trend in business education: entrepreneurship and innovation.

Like MBA students, EMBA candidates and applicants are showing increasing interest in startups – and in learning innovation skills to apply across all areas of business. To respond to student demand, and rapid changes in U.S. and global industries, highly ranked B-schools are offering more and more programming dedicated to entrepreneurship.

“The level of interest is just higher across the board,” says Toby Stuart, professor of entrepreneurship at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business. “At some point probably 30% of each class writes me and wants to talk about a startup.”

Stuart cites a number of drivers behind the heightened interest in entrepreneurship: billions of mobile phones, “ubiquitous penetration of the internet,” the cloud, computing power, open data, and growth in the technology and social media arenas.

‘A FAIRLY RATIONAL RESPONSE TO AN OPPORTUNITY’

“There’s been a combination of a decrease in the barriers to entry and an increase in the potential upside of entrepreneurship, and that naturally draws talent,” Stuart says. “It’s a fairly rational response to an opportunity.”

For working professional EMBA students, entrepreneurship can be a double-edged sword. Most have built up a wealth of knowledge, skills, contacts, confidence, and often capital that can be dedicated to a startup. That gives them an edge over many younger upstarts, including the budding entrepreneurs flooding out of MBA programs. On the other hand, EMBAs usually have houses and families, raising the stakes of failure.

Bob Rosenberg, director of entrepreneurship programs at Booth's Polsky Center

Bob Rosenberg, director of entrepreneurship programs at Booth’s Polsky Center

Among EMBA students at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, interest in entrepreneurship is definitely higher than it was 10 years ago, says Bob Rosenberg, director of entrepreneurship programs in the school’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship.

“Part of that is that the marketplace is different,” Rosenberg says. “You can start a business with much less money. People’s perceived risk tolerance may be different than it used to be. There are compelling externalities in terms of soft money available in terms of a business getting going.

“We’ve had entrepreneurs come out of the program that have got some very promising businesses. We’ve also had people who have done startups and have abandoned them quickly . . . because of the amount of attention and bandwidth that a startup really takes.”

Applications for Booth’s New Venture Challenge have risen to 80 to 100 from 20 or 30 two decades ago, Rosenberg says. “Those are pretty robust numbers for a pretty small school,” he says.

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At Wharton this month, litigation lawyer Munish Dayal received his EMBA degree, punctuating a long-running interest in entrepreneurship – from a “real nerdy” but revenue-positive digital content business as a high schooler, to a rapid expansion of a successful law firm after passing the bar, to legal work for numerous tech startups, to a new venture developed during his EMBA program – hawking flowers.

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