The Growth of Start-Up Campus Mentors

Why are top business schools bringing entrepreneurs-in-residence onto campus to mentor MBAs?

Some successful entrepreneurs are known for dropping out of college. Mark Zuckerberg did so after founding Facebook.com from Harvard University. Bill Gates also dropped out of the Ivy League school to create Microsoft. PayPal founder Peter Thiel, meanwhile, is paying youngsters not to go to college and instead start a company. 

Business schools may sometimes struggle to convince entrepreneurs of the value of an MBA degree, but they are recruiting droves of them to teach at their institutions. So-called “entrepreneurs-in-residence” are, increasingly, being brought into top business schools to educate, coach and mentor MBA students on how to succeed as a start-up founder. 

Harvard Business School (HBS) has recruited 21 entrepreneurs-in-residence to help its MBAs this year, all of whom are former HBS students and come from a variety of industries. They include Stephen Bonner, the former president and CEO of Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and InsightSquared founder Sam Clemens, whose business provides a data service for companies.

They provide one-on-one advice sessions for students who are thinking of striking out on their own. They also have a hand in developing courses and working with faculty on research. 

“Students can test ideas and get pretty blunt feedback on their start-up projects, and they learn from a diverse set of opinions,” says Jodi Gernon, director of the school’s Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship. 

She adds that 50% of HBS alumni will start a business within five-15 years of graduating “because they have got the experience, the industry expertise and can see a problem that no one is addressing”. 

One example is Matthew Prince, who in 2009 co-founded cybersecurity start-up Cloudflare at HBS with classmate Michelle Zatlyn. The study of entrepreneurship is a vital part of the school’s MBA program, he says, which includes a required course in the first year, numerous electives in the second year and the annual New Venture Competition.

“The business plan competition in particular forces you to think about your business in a vigorous and thorough way,” says Prince, who won the school’s business plan contest in 2011. 

“The process of pitching [in the competition] is also similar to raising capital,” adds Prince, who has raised US$182 million for the company. “You get introduced to investors, and some of the judges end up becoming early investors in students’ companies.” 

This year at University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, 16 “Fellows in Entrepreneurship” will support students by, for example, providing them with summer internships or other work-based projects, according to Hanadi Jabado, executive director of school’s Entrepreneurship Center. “Entrepreneurs without mentors stand no chance of success,” she says. 

“Mentors can point the entrepreneur in the right direction, make introductions, recommendations, and sometimes they invest a little bit in students’ companies and call on their network to invest alongside them.” 

The 25 entrepreneurs-in-residence at the Rotterdam School of Management are motivated by the prospect of giving back to their former alma mater.

“Most of them are alumni and like to be involved on a voluntary basis,” says Justin Jansen, professor of corporate entrepreneurship. “They give back to the school with their enthusiasm and energy about starting their own business, and act as role models.” 

With debate growing around whether experience is more valuable than academic achievement, are successful entrepreneurs better placed to teach business students about entrepreneurship? “Most of our entrepreneurs are well connected…they bring in a very nice network that faculty often lack,” says Jansen. 

But he recommends a mix of academic insight and entrepreneurial practice. “A proper academic background provides you with the tools and techniques to better manage a start-up,” he says, “which enable young entrepreneurs to deal with difficult situations more effectively.” 

Back at Cloudflare, Prince thinks he got great value from his MBA curriculum.

“The big benefit is the opportunity to take risks. If you do that in the workplace and screw it up, the costs are a lot higher than in a classroom. With the HBS curriculum, you can role play situations every day. Ultimately, HBS has helped us become successful.”

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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