Two years ago Carlo Del Mistro, 27, from Lake Como in northern Italy, was working as a strategist with Lehman Brothers in London – but he didn't see his future in banking. He left to take a full-time MBA at London Business School, where his wife Simone was also doing a one-year Masters in finance course.
"I wanted to do something entrepreneurial," he says, "and I had several ideas. We ended up with gelato."
Del Mistro is now in the final stages of his MBA, and will graduate in June. But Gelato Mio, the ice-cream shop that he and Simone opened last year in Holland Park, west London, is already thriving.
Getting it going took a lot of business skills – studying the market, finance, buying the machinery, bidding and negotiating for a lease, arranging the supply chain. The Del Mistros visit the market every two days for fresh fruit for their gelato, which uses less cream and is lighter than traditional ice cream.
"Starting a business while you are still at business school is quite unusual," he says. "But I had the whole year behind me – hundreds of students came for the opening and helped out. It was like having a big family in London."
Davide Sola, head of the ESCP-EAP school in London, has seen a sharp increase in entrepreneurial MBA students, in new sectors such as renewable energy and stem cells as well as in mature industries. Ideas for enterprise, he says, often spring from MBA projects.
"For example, a group of Executive MBA students was reviewing the bio-fuel industry for a private equity firm," says Sola. "At the end of the project, one student – an African citizen – decided to start up a company producing bio-ethanol in the sub-Sahara region."
But how do you foster such initiatives? Dragons' Den-style pitches only go so far. Entrepreneurs need practical advice, introductions to business angels – and cash. Start-up competitions can provide some of that, but endowments are more reliable. Luckily, several top British schools have benefited recently in this area.
London Business School has been given something approaching £3m from an alumnus, Tony Wheeler, co-founder of the Lonely Planet travel guides, to endow a chair in entrepreneurship. This follows an earlier gift from David Potter, founder of Psion, the computer hardware company.
Going one better, Cass Business School in London has a new Centre for Entrepreneurship that will administer a £10m fund for investing in small businesses. The money comes from Peter Cullum, an MBA alumnus, who founded Towergate, the underwriting group.
"We're at just the point in the economy where we really need more innovation, more enterprise, more startups led by really smart people," says Nick Badman, the centre's new chair. "It's clearly getting a higher political profile.
"A lot of people are being forced to re-examine themselves and their careers. People being tipped out of investment banks and law firms are bright and hard-working – just the right kind of people to start their own businesses."
Badman envisages that the £10m will be released a few hundred thousand pounds at a time. "Then we would work with entrepreneurs to help them develop their ideas," he says.
Judge Business School in Cambridge also has a Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, aimed at training students in the ways of business. It was through networking at the centre's Ignite programme last year, for example, that Abel Ureta-Vidal found a chairman for his bioinformatics company, Eagle Genomics, which he founded within a year of completing his MBA at Judge.
"Cambridge is home to the largest biocluster in Europe and I wanted to stay in touch with the field of biology I had been researching," says Ureta-Vidal.
Saïd Business School is similarly adept at linking budding postgraduate entrepreneurs with business angels, partly through its annual "Silicon Valley comes to Oxford" project.
At Manchester Business School, where the director Mike Luger has launched a new enterprise centre, innovative students have the chance to do a Master of enterprise degree, a combination of theory and practical application.
The contribution of micro-businesses is being recognised. The Northwest Regional Development Agency is about to commission a £10m business leadership development programme, LEAD, developed at Lancaster University. "Previous government initiatives have excluded micro businesses, although they constitute about 90 per cent of businesses in the North West and a similarly high figure nationally," explains the programme director Sue Peters.
In the same vein, Manchester Metropolitan Business School has offered nine of its academics £12,500 each to set up their own micro-companies. For example, Jonathan Savage, a reader in education, has invented a new musical instrument that is played through a PC using a Playstation controller. He is currently trying it out in schools in the Greater Manchester area and hopes it will be taken up as a teaching aid.
Many business schools offer some kind of incubation. Since its launch in 2002, for example, 71 businesses have sprung from the Moffat Centre at Edinburgh Napier University Business School. Of these, 48 are still active and operating from their own premises.
Foreign entrepreneurs have sometimes lacked such advantages, but now HEC Paris has joined forces with Beijing's Tsinghua School of Economics and Management and Goldman Sachs to create a new programme designed to foster 450 new female entrepreneurs in five years – and that's just in China.
'Having a natter is vital for business'
Mike Smith, 31, did a part-time MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School and has since set up Mooch Art, which sells work by emerging artists.
"The MBA taught me the basics and then I developed the idea at Innospace, a hot-desking space where a lot of young companies meet. You do the work you would do if you were in your bedroom, but the difference is the people around you are starting a business as well, and there are mentors.
You spend a lot of time networking and bouncing ideas off each other. Having a natter is vital when your business doesn't have a location. A lot of things came from it. The guy who did my branding was there, a girl helped me with some PR; other people helped with the website. It's all cost-cutting, innovative stuff, sharing ideas.
We're holding our own and sales are ahead of target. They say a recession is one of the best times to start a business. If you can survive then, especially in the art world, you know you've got something people want."
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