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Do new tech entrepreneurs need an MBA?

Considering starting your own company? If so, career expert Molly Joss provides insight on whether getting an MBA degree in entrepreneurship is the way to go, and on other issues you should consider in taking this career path.


Question
Is an MBA degree in entrepreneurship a good way to go for IT professionals, like myself, who are toying with starting their own company?

Answer
For IT pros aspiring to the upper echelons of IT management, such as a CIO or VP position, having an MBA is a solid building block. If your goals are not so lofty—say, you are just more interested in staying on the technology side of IT—then an MBA might be an expensive extra that you don't need.

For tech professionals, the main entrepreneurial skill is experience, and having an MBA is not required to learn how to start your own business. Instead, you can focus on getting management roles at as many IT start-up companies as you can in the next few years. These roles will help you learn what works in business today and teach you how to get paid at the same time.

Keep in mind, though, that working for any start-up company is risky; many new businesses fail, and the failure rate of IT businesses is particularly high. To be best prepared, focus on keeping your living expenses as low as possible, so that you can economically cope if the company unexpectedly closes its doors.

In targeting work at start-ups, aim for the highest role you can. This will allow you to see enough inside business machinations to get valuable experience.

One word of caution: As you interview for these learn-as-you-earn jobs, do not tell your prospective employer that you are interested in starting your own business. That statement is enough to guarantee you won't get the job, particularly if the company's founders are even slightly suspicious that someone might steal their ideas.

Your admission into the upper ranks of a company's management team will be easier if you are able to combine working with getting your education. This is where you might consider enrolling in an MBA program or business courses. These credentials obviously will help if you're looking to open your own business, and pursuing your education boosts your current career profile because companies are impressed with people who can juggle the dual load of work and education.

When researching MBA course work or business classes, investigate the curriculum and try to attend a few of the classes to make sure it's in line with the skills you're trying to boost. If you plan to use the Web for online learning, take a class or two before you commit to the entire program to see if you like this mode of education.

U.S. News and World Report recently issued rankings for graduate schools, including the hundreds that offer business master's programs accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) International, as of August 2002. Most grant MBAs, but some offer master's degrees in business. Don't worry if your degree is not an MBA—companies are smart enough to see one as equal to another.

Many schools offer programs that are sensitive to the time constraints of working professionals. Some colleges offer accelerated degrees that take into account your work experience and include shorter classes that may be offered during evenings, weekends, and even holidays.

I quickly read through the U.S. News rankings of a few MBA programs, including entrepreneurial-related ones. The three colleges with the top-rated entrepreneurial programs are Babson College in Massachusetts, The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford University in California.

The Wharton School and Stanford are respected names in the MBA world, but Babson isn't as well known. Don't let that stop you if Babson offers courses of interest. The program at Babson seems pretty comprehensive and well-grounded in the real world. There are one-year and two-year MBAs if you want to go full time, as well as an evening program if you want to go part time.

Babson just recently introduced a Fast Track MBA program that combines online classes, monthly face-to-face meetings with professors, and short assignments that you do at home. You continue to work while getting the degree, and you can be finished in 27 months.

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