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?”


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.


  1. Oksana
    Posted September 29, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Lesson learned: MBA=great, Being An Engineer=great, a combination of the two = rule the world :)

  2. Nikhil Barthwal
    Posted October 18, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Just a correction. Steve Ballmer is a dropout of Stanford MBA. His undergraduate was from Harvard where he lived across the hall from Bill Gates. And he never completed his MBA ofcourse!

  3. Posted September 19, 2013 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Most companies are built by entrepreneurs with 3 key skills; getting a customer, getting the sale and leveraging other peoples skills, assets and influence. An MBA is great if you are taking over a company that is already successful but it’s not a prerequisite for creating one.

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