Should Entrepreneurs Go Back To School?

Entrepreneurs don't need an advanced degree to be successful. But will it improve their odds? Katie Morell explores.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
July 28, 2011

Back in 2007, Cora Shaw, a student at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, walked into a class that would change the direction of her professional life. The course, titled ‘New Venture Strategy,’ was designed to help students plan a small business that would work in the real world.

Shaw’s first thought: an ice cream shop.

“I really love ice cream, was watching way too much Food Network, and was getting my MBA—put those together and there you go,” she says.

She was determined to make her shop stand out from the crowd, and was taken by Alton Brown’s (Food Network star) method of freezing ice cream with liquid nitrogen.

After some research, she found a few shops in Chicago that used the fluid to make tasty treats, but none that specialized in made-to-order ice cream concoctions. She had her plan.

Her shop would include an automated system—using liquid nitrogen—to quickly turn out high volumes of ice cream with inventive flavors and toppings to suit the desire of every customer.

In March 2009, Shaw and fellow student Jason McKinney opened iCream in Chicago. Crowds of ice cream lovers streamed in, largely attracted to the shop that resembled a mad scientist’s lab—with giant tubes pumping liquid nitrogen into six commercial mixers. Visitors started creating inventive flavors—from honey/almond to burnt sugar/vanilla to green tea/coffee. Today, iCream is a staple in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, and it’s all thanks to Shaw’s MBA program. In the future, Shaw plans to open additional shops in other U.S. cities.

All of this begs the question…should budding (or well-established) entrepreneurs go back to school?

Before jumping into a program, there are a few things to consider. According to Mike Roberts, executive director at the Rock Center for Entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School, every passing year you are (happily) engaged in interesting work, the benefit of an MBA decreases and the opportunity cost of taking two years off increases. See how educated successful entrepreneurs are in this infographic.

That said, “there are things you can learn in an MBA program that can open your mind to important and interesting ideas; it can give you a much better perspective on alternative paths and opportunities,” he notes.

Money is also a major factor. But, as Roberts points out, it isn’t the only factor. “Look at it as an investment—you will spend the rest of your life working, so to have two years of intellectual activity, it can give you a lens on the rest of your business career that infuses more intellectual thinking about what you are doing.”

Of course, full-time programs are not the only option. Many business owners opt for a nights-and-weekends program (note: Harvard only offers a full-time program).

Is your head spinning yet? Fear not. Here are some questions that may help you establish a direction.

Why do you want to go?

Shaw recommends spelling out each benefit of going to school. What about the experience would help your business or you personally?

“If you can only think of a few reasons or have a specific area of weakness, you might want to take a few classes instead of enrolling in a program,” she says.

Do you have the resources to go back to school?

This doesn’t just mean money—as Shaw notes, loans are often available. Instead, consider your available time. Do you have the time to take classes, run a business and spend time with your family?

“If you go back to school but are so worn out that you can’t give it the attention it needs, it isn’t worth it,” she says.

What are the drawbacks?

Shaw says it is important to consider the cons of going to school. For example, would the experience put you in a financial position that's impossible to recover from?

Where do you want to go?

This is a biggie, especially if you may be looking for funding down the road.

“Some schools have better reputations than others and the better the school, the better the credibility, which could help you get funding for your business in the long run,” she says.