Harvard Business School: A Unicorn Factory?

Has Harvard Business School become a production line for successful entrepreneurs?

Harvard Business School (HBS) has long been known as a conveyor belt of future chief executive officers. When the Financial Times counted MBAs among the CEOs of the world’s 500 largest companies last year, HBS had nearly twice as many as any other business school.


What is less well-known is that Harvard Business School is also a breeding ground for entrepreneurs who go on to found startup companies with multi-billion dollar valuations. When it comes to producing successful startups, HBS is making other business schools look bad. Data from PitchBook shows 1,069 Harvard MBAs have founded 961 companies that have raised a total of US$22.4 billion in venture capital — more than any other school globally. In addition, entrepreneurs from Harvard have founded 13 unicorns — companies valued at or above US$1 billion — nearly double the number of its closest competitor.

“We have 30 faculty who are entrepreneurship-focused” says HBS director

“We have over 20 different courses in entrepreneurship to help students figure out how to launch a company,” says Jodi Gernon, director of Harvard Business School’s Rock Center for Entrepreneurship. “We have 30 faculty who are entrepreneurship-focused and we have many practitioners who have founded successful companies who are all teaching classes that help to create these great entrepreneurial leaders.”

Through the Rock Center, students can work on their startup ideas throughout the summer months. The Rock Accelerator program includes workshops, check-ins to support progress, and opportunities to pitch for seed funding to build, validate and launch businesses. “Students spend three months focusing on their business opportunity to see if their idea has legs,” Gernon says.

Once ideas are formed, Harvard Business School’s entrepreneurs can use the annual New Venture Competition (NVC) as a launchpad. This year, student and alumni teams pitched to investors for a total of US$300,000 in venture capital funding. “The competition provides a very supportive environment where students can get feedback from alumni and conduct research to help them define their market,” says Gernon.

“You can take risks in a safe environment” says Cloudflare CEO

HBS MBAs, Matthew Prince and Michelle Zatlyn, won the school’s startup competition in 2009Winners of past competitions at the Ivy League business school have gone on to achieve huge success. MBA graduates Matthew Prince and Michelle Zatlyn (pictured, left) won the NVC’s predecessor, the HBS Business Plan Contest, six years ago with their cybersecurity company Cloudflare. The pair came up with the idea for Cloudflare during a five-day trip, organized by HBS, to the San Francisco Bay Area. “We thought it was just a business school project at the time, but every day that passed it became clearer and clearer that it was a real opportunity,” says Prince, CEO. 

Cloudflare’s software protects internet applications from spam and malicious attacks, and claims that 10% of all internet requests run through its severs in San Francisco. The company has grown to have 500 employees, over US$100 million in annual revenue and a purported valuation of over US$3 billion. The company is gearing up for an IPO.

“There is value in an MBA degree,” says Prince. “During the program, you role-play situations entrepreneurs face every day and you can take risks in a safe environment that you would not take otherwise. The network is also very valuable, although that is a cliché. Our first investor was a Harvard graduate who trusted us and related to us because he could call our professors, who could vouch for us.


“As we get closer to being a public company the value is still there. Many of the people we went to business school with are now investment bankers and we have leveraged that network.” 

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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