How did a Harvard MBA help you to become a tech entrepreneur?

“How did a Harvard MBA help you to become a tech entrepreneur? What do you make of arguments that an MBA is not necessary, even distracting to spend 2 years in school (and in debt) rather than focusing entirely on a business? What suggestions could you make to someone who wants to become a tech entrepreneur/VC as regards pursuing an MBA or not?” –P

The Harvard MBA says:

Great questions P, and ironically enough, they have overlapping answers.  Let’s tackle them one at a time:

1) At the time I was an MBA student (fall 1998 - spring 2000), it was a golden era for MBA students in tech entrepreneurship.  The dot com bubble was in full swing, and the working theory was that MBA students were young enough to understand this brave new world, but had the business knowledge to monetize the Internet.  For the most part, this theory was dead wrong, but it allowed me to do things like start a company over the summer and raise VC money even though I was in school.

At the time, I knew it was a bubble, and often told people who asked me why I had started a company, “We’re at the only time in history when venture capitalists will be dumb enough to give MBA students millions of dollars to start a company.”  I believe that I’ve been proven correct.

That being said, there were rational benefits that still apply today.  The school’s alumni network helped me reach out to investors; HBS alumni are wildly overrepresented at VC firms, and most are more willing to meet with alumni than strangers off the street.  The school’s network helps with other relationships as well; for example, I actually got a return phone call from Jamie Dimon at one point–nothing came of it, but he never would have talked with a 24-year-old with an idea if it weren’t for that alumni connection.

The actual business school training also helps, especially if you’re a B2B entrepreneur.  A lot of entrepreneurs without an MBA have no idea how companies actually function, how capital markets work, and how different industries look at the world.  I’ve almost always served as the Super Sales Engineer at all my companies simply because I can go to any beta customer and understand how they work, be they the Gap, a billion-dollar ad agency, or UCSF’s cancer treatment team (all real examples).

Finally, after you’ve been out of school for a dozen years like I have, those old relationships become even more important.  I now have classmates and old friends at numerous VC firms.  Think they’d be more likely to take a meeting with an old friend than someone over the transom?

2) There are many cases in which an MBA is a distraction.  The dirty secret is that very few great tech companies were started by MBAs.  We usually come in later in the process.  The best example I have of an MBA entrepreneur is Scott Cook of Intuit, and he started that company 30 years ago.

If you’re a great technologist and want to start a company, don’t bother with an MBA.  On the other hand, an MBA can be very helpful for others.  If you’re a “hustler,” an MBA will give you training and a powerful network.  If you have no business background, an MBA will give you credibility.

3) If you want to become an entrepreneur or VC, an MBA can help, but how much it help depends on the stage of your career.  If you’re a non-engineer who’s spent 2 years working in marketing at a company, it’s a great choice.  If you’re already a successful entrepreneur, it probably isn’t.  Know how the MBA can help, and assess whether or not it fits your situation.

Why do business schools prefer engineering majors to business majors?

“4/4 of my friends who were accepted to HBS and Wharton were engineering majors in undergrad, while 4/4 friends who were business majors didn’t even get interviews (superstars with 720+ GMAT). Why do business schools prefer engineering majors?”
–Brian

The Harvard MBA says:

This shouldn’t be too surprising, given the first principle of business school, which is that MBA students are simply future alumni donors.

If you view every admissions decision through that lens, you’ll be pretty close to the truth.

The fact is that engineering majors are more likely to do well in business school, and in their careers afterwards, making them a more attractive choice.

1) Engineering majors are used to a heavy workload, and have strong quantitative skills.

Business school may considered less demanding than many graduate schools, but there is still a significant amount of math and financial modeling involved. Engineering students are more likely to do well, and you can’t become an alumni donor if you don’t graduate.

2) Once you have an HBS/Wharton degree, that serves as your business bona fides.

At that point, an undergrad business degree is meaningless, whereas an undergrad engineering degree is a major asset, especially if you’re looking for jobs in product management, engineering management, or operations.

Remember, business schools want successful alumni; unsuccessful alumni don’t endow professorships.

And in today’s post-Facebook world, every business school wants high tech entrepreneurs as alumni.

Majoring in engineering as an undergraduate isn’t always fun, especially around exam time, but its benefits persist long after graduation.

Can one be successful at starting and running a business (in the area of his/her expertise) without having an MBA?

“Can one be successful at starting and running a business (in the area of his/her expertise) without having an MBA? Have you seen it happen?  What advice would you give to someone like that?”

–Oksana

The Harvard MBA says:

As much as I’d like to claim magical powers for Harvard MBAs, the fact is that most entrepreneurs and top executives aren’t business school graduates.  This isn’t to say that getting your MBA isn’t useful; given the relatively small proportion of MBAs in the general population (there are only 100,000 MBAs awarded annually in the US, and nearly 2 million college degrees of all kinds), but it certainly isn’t a requirement.

Here in Silicon Valley, there’s even a bit of an anti-MBA bias; the most famous companies in the Valley tend to be founded by non-MBAs (think HP, Intel, Apple, Cisco, Google, Facebook, etc.).   The most famous HBS founder depends on your generation–it’s probably either Mark Pincus (Zynga) or Scott Cook (Intuit).

Fortunately, there is still a major role to be played by us MBAs.  Let’s examine America’s 5 most valuable companies:

Apple, Tim Cook: Duke MBA (took over from Steve Jobs, college dropout)

ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson: BS Civil Engineering, University of Texas

Microsoft, Steve Ballmer: Harvard MBA (took over from his friend Bill Gates, college dropout)

IBM, Ginni Rometty: BS Computer Science, Northwestern

General Electric, Jeffrey Immelt: Harvard MBA (took over from Jack Welch, Ph.D. University of Illinois)

To sum up, of America’s 5 most valuable companies, 3 are run by MBAs (two of whom happen to be HBS graduates).  The other two are run by engineers who specialized in the area of focus for their company.  All three of the MBAs took over the top slot from non-MBAs.

It’s always dangerous to draw conclusions from so few data points, but anecdotal evidence suggests that while your MBA doesn’t necessarily help you start a great company, it sure goes a long way towards helping you get the job of running one.

Why Are Black Women Considered Unattractive?

“I’m a 22 year old African American woman and I’m curious as to why black women are considered so unattractive. Why do we of all women get the worst of the worst labels placed on us? I’ve seen YouTube videos, articles, commentary, blogs, studies and statistics that just bash us as if we’re the only imperfect women on planet earth! What’s the deal? Seriously!  Are our looks so unique to the point that if a man likes a black woman he is considered having “strong,heavy taste” in women?”

–Lana B.

The Harvard MBA says:

Most people would be afraid to touch this question with a 100-foot pole.  Fortunately, I’m not most people.

First of all, you’re right about discrimination against black women.  OkCupid uses data from its online dating service to reveal how Americans actually behave, and it’s not always pretty.  For example, here’s one finding from a 2009 blog post:

“Men don’t write black women back. Or rather, they write them back far less often than they should. Black women reply the most, yet get by far the fewest replies. Essentially every race—including other blacks—singles them out for the cold shoulder. “

But wait, there’s more:

White women prefer white men to the exclusion of everyone else—and Asian and Hispanic women prefer them even more exclusively. These three types of women only respond well to white men.

There are many historical reasons for this bias in the United States.  Throughout its history, the US has been a white-dominant society.  Don’t forget, when the founding fathers protested “no taxation without representation,” the only people they thought should have a vote were property-owning white men.  The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920.  (Amazingly enough, Mississippi didn’t officially ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984.)  And it took the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to grant African Americans the effective right to vote in the South (while they technically had the right to vote, the various states had erected numerous barriers that deprived them of their voting rights).

Of course, it’s one thing to cite racism for the bias against black women; it’s quite another to identify the mechanism by which this occurs.

My own take is that attractiveness is generally communicated via popular culture, specifically the world of entertainment.  If I ask people to name a handsome man, they’re likely to cite a movie star, like George Clooney or Brad Pitt, rather than someone from their own life.  (Though I generally cite the absurdly handsome Sundeep Ahuja when asked that same question.  Damn, he’s good looking.)

Whether in movies, television, or music, whites have generally been dominant as well (despite the irony of rock and roll’s origin in the black-created blues).  The American Film Institute created a list of the top 50 movie stars who made their debut before 1950.  Every single one is white (though I supposed Sophia Loren at least has a decent tan).

I feel your pain…for a long time, a common joke among Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry was that in any given year, there were more extraterrestrials in regular TV roles than Asians.

The good news is that things are changing for the better.  In 2011, three black men made Vanity Fair’s list of Hollywood’s Top 40 moneymakers: Will Smith, Tyler Perry, and Eddie Murphy.  Samuel L. Jackson’s movies have grossed more money than any other actor in history (admittedly, he didn’t play the starring role in most of them).  And for 2012, the person who topped People’s list of the 50 most beautiful was Beyonce.

Yet there is still a lot of progress to be made.  Most of the black women who are considered mainstream beauties have a look that one blogger described as “a White girl dipped in chocolate,” with skinny noses and thinner lips.  And the fact that Beyonce was named the most beautiful woman in the world has little comfort if no one returns your messages on Match.com.

Changes takes a long time.  Usually longer than we’d like.  But it does happen.

Ironically enough, one of the biggest signs of change is the lack of fanfare.  It was a big deal in 1997 when Tyra Banks became the first black woman on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.  (Incidentally, Tyra Banks is also now officially a HBS graduate, though not an MBA.  I can un-ironically say, “You go, girl!”)  Same for when Halle Berry was the first black woman on the cover of People’s 50 Most Beautiful.  I can’t recall any attention being paid to Beyonce becoming the second black woman to head People’s list.  It’s just not considered a big deal any more.

I was reminded of this power of banality recently.  In 1997, it was a huge deal when ABC produced a Cinderella musical with Brandy in the starring role. (Whitney Houston played the fairy godmother, while Whoopi Goldberg played the Queen.)  Much was made of the multi-racial cast, with Victor Garber as the King, and Paolo Montalban (no relation) as the handsome Filipino Prince Charming.  Fast-forward 15 years.  The other night, my kids were watching Rags, a Nickelodeon original movie for kids that’s a gender-flipped retelling of the Cinderella story.  Keke Palmer (you may remember her as the star of “Akeelah and the Bee“) plays the Prince Charming character (Old Spice man Isaiah Mustafa plays her father!) who falls for the Cinderella character, played by Max Schneider (mazel tov!).  No one gave a damn that the movie had a Jewish Cinder-fella who falls for a black princess.  Now that’s progress.

As we’ve both noted, black women still face many obstacles in America.  Racism still casts a heavy shadow, even if its most overt examples are fading into memory.  Even men in their 20s, far too young to be scarred by the explicit racism of the last century, show its effects as we saw in the OkCupid data.  But things are improving.

My hope for you is that you find the right man (or woman) to settle down with and marry, and that someday, your daughter won’t even think of asking the same questions you did.

Why does my boyfriend’s Gmail account get so much porn spam?

Why does my boyfriend’s Gmail account get loaded with nothing but porn emails in his spam folder, while my Gmail account gets none?  My spam is always empty, and he gets up to 30 porn spam emails a day.  They even come into his inbox!

–maxine

The Harvard MBA says:

I suspect you probably already know the answer, but I’ll give my thoughts anyways.

I’m not a spam expert, but searching on the term, “pornographic spam volume” revealed a series of articles dating back to 2007 that indicated that pornographic spam has been on the decline.

For example, in February of 2007, Symantec reported that porn spam had dropped from 22% of spam to just 4%.

It is always possible that the flood of pornographic spam is mere coincidence, but you can’t rule out the possibility that your boyfriend used his Gmail account to register with a porn site at some point, which then sold his email address to other players in the industry.

The more important question is, do you care if your boyfriend uses pornography?  While most of the writings on the topic argue that the use of pornography has a negative impact on relationships (indeed, The Art of Manliness argues against the use of pornography) statistics are not destiny.

If your boyfriend habitually uses pornography, but you continue to have a fulfilling sexual relationship, it’s hard to argue that it is having a negative impact.  On the other hand, if you find that your boyfriend seems uninterested in sex, or worse, is pressuring you to engage in sexual practices that make you feel uncomfortable or even painful, you need to speak up and make your feelings known.

If your boyfriend treats you well, and you have a fulfilling relationship, whether or not he uses pornography is probably unimportant.  If he doesn’t treat you well, and you have concerns about your relationship, you should probably discuss his usage of pornography in the broader context of what you want out of the relationship.

Check Out The Economist’s Online MBA Fair

I first started reading The Economist back in 1994, when I was applying to be a Rhodes Scholar, and was told that I needed to be more aware of both global issues and events in the UK.  While I didn’t achieve that goal, I did end up becoming a life-long aficionado of that magazine’s dry humor and global news coverage.

Which is why I was delighted when The Economist reached out to me, asking for help publicizing their online “Which MBA?” fair in February.  This free event, which takes place on February 6 and 7, will give you a chance to chat with deans, admissions officers, current students, and alumni from over 30 business schools, including Sloan and Darden (though not HBS, as far as I can tell).

If you’re interested, you can register for free at the Which MBA? website.

I am 53 years old and want to start my MBA next Fall at 54. Am I crazy?

“I am 53 years old and want to start my MBA next Fall at 54.  Am I crazy?  I have a B.S. in Business and work as an Administrative Assistant at a local community college.  I would like to teach part-time and the school requires an MBA in order to teach.  Do you think this is worth it at my age. I plan to just take one class to ease my way in and the school will probably pay for it.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated.  Thank you, Debbie M.”

The Harvard MBA says:

The question of when to go for your MBA is a common one.  Back when I was considering going to business school, I remember talking with a friend of mine (a Stanford MBA) who told me, “What do you want to maximize–the number of years before you get an MBA, or the number of years afterwards?”  That was a pretty convincing argument, and I started filling out applications right after that.

53 is older than most students, but to me, your situation warrants the investigation.

1) You have a specific objective that obtaining your MBA will allow you to achieve (teaching part-time).

2) Your school is supportive (to the extent of being willing to pay for your first class), from which I infer that if you get your MBA, you will be given an opportunity to teach.

3) You have a background in both business and academics, which means you have a good foundation for this quest.

According to the Social Security actuarial life table, the average 53-year-old woman can expect to live another 30 years.  Given the current state of Social Security, you can probably expect to keep working at least another 20 of those years, which means that your MBA could be helping you for most of that time.

Besides, if you take the first class and find the schedule too taxing or the work boring, you can always decide not to pursue the MBA full time.  Your iterative approach strikes me as wise and effective.

Ultimately, the decision to get an MBA is emotional and practical.  You should ask yourself, will it help me live a happier life?

You asked me, “Am I crazy?”

Is it crazy to want to fulfill a long-held desire to teach?  To take advantage of a supportive employer who encourages those desires?  To better position yourself for the remaining 20 years of your career?

No, I don’t think you’re crazy.  Good luck, Debbie!

Donate $20 to Cancer, Get An Email Answer

Since I get about 5-10 questions per day, and only answer (at most) one per week, a lot of folks don’t get their questions answered.  But if you’re really intent on getting a response from me, through January, you can get an email response to your question for just $20.

Check out all the details on my personal blog.

Will Lysol remove 99.9% of all viruses like the manufacturer promises?

“We have some trash cans we would like to use for clothes and other uses. Will Lysol remove 99.9% of all viruses and completely disinfect the container like the manufacturer promises? I have a bet with my wife and you are going to be the tie-breaker. Thanks.”

–Mark

The Harvard MBA says:

This is an unusual question for me, but since you and your wife agreed that I’d be the tie-breaker, I can hardly refuse!

The good news (for the health of your family at least) is that Lysol is extremely effective.  In this 2000 study available on the NIH web site, researchers at the University of North Carolina Department of Hospital Epidemiology found that Lysol was extremely effective against a broad array of viruses and bacteria:

The following compounds demonstrated excellent antimicrobial activity (>5.6-8.2 log10 reduction) at both exposure times: TBQ, Vesphene, Clorox, ethanol, and Lysol Antibacterial Kitchen Cleaner. Mr. Clean eliminated 4 to >6 logs10 and Lysol Disinfectant approximately 4 logs10 of pathogenic microorganisms at both exposure times. Vinegar eliminated <3 logs10 of S. aureus and E. coli, and baking soda <3 logs10 of all test pathogens. All tested chemical disinfectants completely inactivated both antibiotic-resistant and -susceptible bacteria at both exposure times. Only two disinfectants, Clorox and Lysol, demonstrated excellent activity (>3 log10 reduction) against poliovirus.

Since 99.9% effectiveness is the equivalent of a 3 log10 reduction, Lysol met or exceeded its claimed efficacy for all the pathogens tested, which included Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella choleraesuis, Escherichia coli O157:H7,  Pseudomonas aeruginosa, poliovirus, vancomycin-susceptible and -resistant Enterococcus species, and methicillin-susceptible and -resistant S. aureus.

Let me know who won the bet!

I’m 55 and just sold my company. Should I go back to college and earn my degree?

“I am a 55 year old guy that sold his software company to a public company last year.  I have no college degree but have always felt I was missing something.  I have tons of real world business knowledge.  I don’t want hitting a little white ball to be my future.  I want to share my experiences and obtain a degree.

Thoughts?”

–Carl

The Harvard MBA says:

Carl, you have what we like to call a “high-quality problem.”  Most people would love to be wrestling with the challenges of financial success and independence.  But a high-quality problem is still a problem.

Indeed, a number of my friends have made a lot of money either via IPO or sale, and struggled to figure out what to do next.  If you’ve spent your entire career striving to achieve “success,” what do you do once you achieve it?

One friend tried retiring at the age of 52 after leading his startup to a successful IPO and running a publicly traded company for a number of years.  He even devoted a significant amount of time to golf lessons!  (I suspect that golf has three major attractions for the wealthy: It’s a fun activity with breathtaking views, it takes up an inordinate amount of time, and it reduces the chance that you’ll run into poor people who will ask you for money.  The ridiculous outfits are just a bonus.)

He found retirement boring, and came out of retirement to found another company.  After selling that company, he does appear to have retired, but this time, he had a secret weapon: Grandchildren.

It sounds like you’re pretty self-aware and that you feel like college may help you find what you think you’ve been missing. On the other hand, it also sounds like you feel some trepidation at going back to school at age 55.

It strikes me that you’re hoping that going back to college will do several things: 1) Allow you to share your experience with young people who will benefit from them, 2) Give you a chance to explore interests and activities long deferred, and 3) Let you earn a college degree.

From a practical standpoint, earning a college degree strikes me as the least important of those goals, though if you discover along the way that you want to pursue a path that requires such a degree (such as obtaining an advanced degree so you can teach), that might change.

Also, there is a great deal of work involved in pursuing full-time studies, ranging from the prosaic (getting your old high school transcripts together) to the unpleasant (taking the SAT) to the absurd (asking people for recommendation letters).  It’s enough work that it might take you some time to get started.

Finally, I’m not certain that 18-year-old freshmen are the ideal folks with who to share your experiences.  They may be more interested in consuming alcohol and pursuing members of the opposite (or same) sex than in hearing about your wealth of business experiences.

Rather than jumping to full-time studies right away, might I suggest tackling your objectives directly?

If you want to share your experiences with young people, seek out the local entrepreneurial community.  These folks will be delighted to hear from a successful software entrepreneur.  If you want to guarantee your popularity, simply hang out your shingle as an angel investor.  Trust me, there will be many people eager to hear your stories!

If you want to explore interests and activities long deferred, jump right in with courses, either through your local college/university, or via clubs and other organizations.  In fact, this might be even more effective than enrolling in a college degree program, since you won’t be stuck taking required courses for a year or two.

If after taking these two steps, you discover that you do want to pursue a degree, you’ll have plenty of new experiences to help you feel confident in your choice.

Do write back and tell us what you decide to do!