When Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the easyGroup tycoon, talks to business students, he sometimes begins with a joke. What's the best way to get started? Borrow $30m from your father.
An alumnus of the London School of Economics (LSE) and of City University (now Cass) Business School, Stelios is one of many executives and entrepreneurs who regularly speak at business schools. The gain is mutual: students are inspired and speakers earn the satisfaction of passing on their experience. The students also help to keep the executives in touch.
Stelios funds 20 scholarships at LSE and Cass, and maintains contact with these students, who are all taking the same courses he did. "I enjoy meeting them in a casual setting or being in touch by email. Their enthusiasm and energy is inspirational," he says.
Stelios relates lessons he has taken to heart in establishing and running his businesses. "Some were learned in school; and some by getting out and 'kicking the tyres'."
So who motivated him? "Of course, my father was a key source of inspiration. Business was always discussed at home and I learned a lot during dinner table discussions," he says. But while other entrepreneurs, such as Richard Branson, do inspire him, he says: "For me, the commitment to an idea, the passion to make it happen and the willingness to take a risk are the most important aspects of being an entrepreneur."
Like many students, Cass MBA alumnus Ruben Barata-Rodrigues, from Portugal, also comes from an entrepreneurial family. He heard Stelios talk at the school's Dubai symposium last year. "He was strikingly pragmatic and realistic. He continuously challenges established concepts," he says.
In the large auditorium at Judge Business School, Cambridge, 150 hard-boiled MBA students were recently enthralled by Pinky Lilani, cookery consultant and founder of a number of awards for Asian women, who related her experiences while also cooking enough curry to serve them all. "It was unreal," said one student. In fact, it was the opposite. Those who survive the rollercoaster of business bring real life into an academic environment. That – and their contacts – is why good speakers are much in demand.
Exposure to successful business people is particularly important at a research-oriented institution such as Manchester Business School, says the director, Michael Luger. "For students to be able to bounce theories off people who've been in the trenches is tremendously useful. It's also about creating networks. We have major events with the best people around, but also informal lunches between alumni and students."
Manchester has an executive-in-residence programme attracting senior business people looking for time to reflect – who can give practical advice to students. Executives usually visit schools as part of a summit, conference or leadership series. Nottingham University Business School attracts speakers such as Michael Queen, chief executive of 3i, the private equity group. "We only ask people who are happy to stay behind [afterwards] and talk to people," says Sophia Taylor, external relations manager.
These question and answer sessions can be the most rewarding part of such evenings. "People get quite a grilling, especially this year with the economic context," says Taylor. And there are advantages for executives, too. Robin Gilchrist, global vice-president of sales at Alcatel-Lucent, the communications provider, regularly speaks at Durham Business School and sits on the MBA advisory board there.
"I get an incredible amount out of it," he says. "First, I'm putting something back. Second, you hear a lot of bright ideas. We had four Durham students in my business last year. Some of them were taken into customer-facing situations as a result of what they'd presented, because it was so useful."
Last year, Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, and Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, formed part of a panel at the Saïd Business School, Oxford. George Soros, the financier, and Jim O'Neill, head of research at Goldman Sachs, were among recent visitors to London Business School.
Is there competition for speakers? "Not explicitly," says Stephan Chambers, Saïd's MBA director, "but implicitly. If Bill Clinton decided to speak in Oxford rather than elsewhere, you cherish it.
"Any prospective MBA student should realise that a lot of what he or she will learn will be off the curriculum. People here are very well connected. It's not a formal thing. The higher grade the school is, the more distinguished their speakers will be."
Stelios's top business tips
* Look at companies where the consumers are paying out of their own pockets – ie consumer-facing BC (business to customer). Consumers behave in a rational way when confronted with a value judgement. Give them a product at the right price and they will take it. BBs and people spending a company's money don't work in the same way.
* Choose a product or service with a price-elastic demand curve – a product or service where consumers buy more when you reduce the price.
* Look at the yield management – the same product given at different prices.
*Eliminate the frills – outsource your work to the customer when you can – without compromising quality.
* Under-promise and over-deliver.
* Don't expand too fast. Respect the consumer – and maintain your brand integrity.