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Smart Moves: MBAs get the skills to go it alone

During the past decade entrepreneurship has become a fixture in business schools to an extent which must warm the cockles of Gordon Brown's heart. With the downsizing of big corporations and the desire of today's MBA students to go it alone, business schools are responding.

In Britain, Imperial College and London Business School are just two of the schools in the forefront of helping students to start their own companies; in France, Insead emphasises entrepreneurship; and in Spain the Instituto de Empresa is putting itself on the map.

Like many countries in Europe, Spain doesn't have a reputation for being fantastically entrepreneurial. The institute may have been created by entrepreneurs some 25 years ago, but it has taken time for the notion to become acceptable in Spain. Now, more students are signing up because of the institute's work in this area. One of them, Marco Pellizzer, 27, is an Italian who has been working for American Express in Brighton.

"I liked the stress the institute put on entrepreneurship," he says. "I don't think many business schools push people to become entrepreneurs. But the institute does. Throughout the course the teachers talk about how to set up a company."

One of Mr Pellizzer's ambitions is to establish his own business, though at the end of the International MBA he is planning to return to American Express. When looking for a business school he was impressed by how many institute alumni actually set up on their own.

Around 10 per cent of MBA students have created their own companies over the last decade: 3 per cent immediately on graduation; the rest three to seven years after graduation. When asked, the majority of MBA students say they want to be their own bosses: 55 per cent say they're interested in setting up their own businesses.

Based in Madrid, the institute is one of the three top business schools in Spain, boasting a close relationship with the Spanish royal family. Entrepreneurship is part of the core MBA syllabus. All students on the 15-month international MBA are required to produce an entrepreneurial business plan (helped by a team of 40 tutors who are graduates of the school) which they may pursue later for their project. The business plan involves establishing a new company or doing something entrepreneurial within an existing company.

"The MBA makes entrepreneurship obligatory," says Thibaud Durand, deputy director of entrepreneurship. "It's not simply an elective at the end of the programme. Everybody goes through it."

In addition to the core material on entrepreneurship and the development of a business plan, students have the chance to take elective courses on, for example, franchising.

But it's not only the entrepreneurial emphasis which attracts students. They like the fact that the institute is so international. More than 40 per cent of students taking the international MBA come from outside Spain, half of these from Latin America (but very few so far from Britain). The institute acts as a bridge for people interested in doing business in Latin America.

One of those people is Baul Verhagen, 27, a Dutchman who has worked for a Spanish hotel chain, and who was attracted by the international nature of the school.

He has already tried one business venture - a beach club in Venezuela - which didn't work out and he's hoping that he's learning enough at the institute to avoid failure in the future.

The Executive MBA aimed at local businessmen is taught with

a similar entrepreneurial edge. Seven per cent of graduates start their own companies within seven years. And this summer the institute is launching a new short course in corporate entrepreneurship - for businessmen who want to learn how to work in big organisations in an entrepreneurial way.

Last year the institute began to develop an International Centre for Entrepreneurship and Ventures Development with sponsorship from IBM. It is an on-line global meeting point for people wanting to invest in new ventures and for budding entrepreneurs with bright ideas for new businesses.

It will also be a partnership of business schools from around the world. Ignacio de la Vega, the centre's director, says he has five or six schools in Europe which are interested in joining, including two from Scandinavia, one from the Netherlands and one from Britain. He is touring Europe at the moment to find partners. Next month he will be in Britain, visiting Cranfield management centre and business schools in London, Cambridge and Manchester.

The centre will have its own website and computer network containing a database of business projects given by member schools. Business Angels will join the centre for a fee of around pounds 7,500 and be able to tap into the list of business projects seeking funding. They will be given a contact telephone number and be able to get in touch with whoever is behind a project.

The beauty of the scheme, according to Ignacio de la Vega is that it should overcome a major hurdle for would-be entrepreneurs and financiers. "Most MBA students think that setting up your own company is difficult on the grounds that it's very hard to raise money," he explains. "If you talk to venture capitalists, particularly Business Angels, those who invest in small to medium sized projects, they tell you what they are lacking is projects."

The centre hopes to do other things too - to enable students from business schools in different countries to work together on business plans and to have professors engaged in joint research. In 2000 it is planning to offer on-line training for entrepreneurs all over the world - with courses in managing innovation, how to create firms and how to manage risk.

"This centre is going to change the way students think," says Ignacio de la Vega. "We shall probably see many more of our students becoming entrepreneurs at the end of the programme in three years time. That's very good. It creates jobs and generates wealth."