Qualified for entrepreneurial success

With an MBA in hand, anyone seeking to set up a business is already ahead of the game, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

When Bob Williamson decided to leave the corporate banking world two years ago with the aim of striking out and setting up his own business, everyone advised him that the best way to start was to do an MBA. But when he spoke to some of the leading names in the business school world, he was put off by something.

"All the students I saw myself mixing with were trying to get into the world that I wanted to leave," he explains. "I couldn't see myself learning much from people aspiring to senior positions in the corporate world, when that was the world I'd worked in for nearly 20 years."

So he sought out an MBA attracting a more diverse mix of students, with a variety of career aims, including running a small business. And he found it, at Imperial College's Tanaka Business School.

Now, nearly a year after finishing his 12-month MBA, he's set up his own business - helping overseas students furnish and kit out their first living accommodation in Britain--and relishing his complete change of lifestyle.

"The entrepreneurship part of the course taught me about the big picture of running a business. When I worked in banking I never had a clue what the accounting or HR did."

The entrepreneurship strand is one of the recognised strengths of Imperial's MBA programme, and one the university is trying to build on.

"In the field of general MBAs, it's hard to compete with the big guns," explains Dr Simon Barnes, managing director of Imperial's Entrepreneurship Centre. "But, given that we're sitting right in the middle of a campus of a leading technological university, it makes sense to develop a specialisation for maximising the value of intellectual property."

From this September, entrepreneurship is being drawn into the core of the MBA programme, via a new project which all students will undertake from the first week of the course. Small groups will be given a real piece of technology from the Imperial campus and have to evaluate its business potential.

Later in the year, they have the option to take three entrepreneurship modules, dealing in depth with creating technology-based ventures, understanding venture capital finance, and turning university research into profitable businesses.

And there's plenty of evidence that the Tanaka School churns out entrepreneurs with just these skills. Ceres Power, a company formed by two former MBA students, grew from an idea based on fuel cell technology work at Imperial. It's now raised £9m in venture capital.

Not all businesses survive, of course. Many are strangled at birth, either by the harsh realities of the competitive marketplace, or because the original idea didn't quite work in practice. Either way, new start-ups need to be nurtured, and it is with this in mind that several institutions have established "incubators" to look after new businesses. The Manchester Business School Incubator was set up in 2002 by two Manchester MBA graduates, one of whom is Louse Pinfold, now one of the managers. "It is clear some students choose to do their MBA at Manchester because of the incubator," she says. "Lots of them would like to start up their own businesses but don't have an idea."

Around 10 per cent of Manchester's MBA students choose to do modules at the incubator. These consist of 30 hours' lecture time, plus a practical element, where they get paired up with entrepreneurs from outside who've brought their fledgling businesses to the Incubator.

The students' task is to use their theoretical knowledge in the areas of financing, marketability and other areas to advise and work with the entrepreneurs. Their work is assessed in large part by the degree to which they actually help the small businesses in question.

Among recent successes of the incubator is a business making motorbikes for people with disabilities - the first machines are about to go on sale - and a company producing educational DVDs, which has a turnover of £500,000, 18 months after being taken on by the incubator.

MBA students at Strathclyde University also have the chance to take courses specifically aimed at starting up a business.

Current MBA student Mubbasher Khanzada is studying while setting up his own business, an IT system aimed at cutting waste associated with cancelled GP and hospital appointments.

"The way entrepreneurship education is approached really makes a difference," he says. "It has helped me enormously in the real world of starting and setting up the business."

Having an MBA is a significant advantage for anyone wanting to start up in business, says John Peters, the new chairman of the Association of MBAs. "It gives you the basic alphabet in terms of business tools," he says. "If you've got one, you're sure as hell ahead of the game."