Before Leo Castellanos enrolled on an executive MBA program he was a senior advisor at the consultancy EY, where he transitioned after six years at PwC, another of the big four professional services firms.
Now he is a start-up founder and investor, working across London’s entrepreneurial scene while running his business Comparabien, the fast-growing Latin-American price comparison website which he founded with classmate Alfredo Ramirez in 2010.
“It is easier to have a corporate career, and it’s always less of a risk,” says Leo. “[But] at some point you realize that regardless of what you do, you’re just a number,” he adds.
Since graduating from Cass Business School’s EMBA and launching Comparabien in Peru, he has grown the company to operate across Colombia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Argentina. In 2013 the company raised £350,000 in a funding round. The business expects to close a second round of £1.5 million in investment this year.
Leo is one of a growing number of corporate deserters who have been turned toward entrepreneurship while on executive MBA programs. These programs were once seen as the corporate world’s degree and participants were sponsored by their companies, hoping to gain promotion.
But now, EMBAs are populated with executives seeking to make a career change and transition into a new industry, function or even location.
Many of these managers enrol to establish start-up businesses, according to Federico Frattini, director of MIP Politecnico di Milano’s EMBA programs. “We have seen a growth in the number of our EMBAs starting their own businesses and launching entrepreneurial ventures,” he says.
This diversification has led to a fall in the number of companies sponsoring EMBA students. At the Wharton School in the United States, corporate sponsorships of EMBA students have fallen to as low as 22%, from 50% in 2009.
During the financial crisis companies cut back on funding business education and executive courses, which are notoriously expensive, were some of the hardest hit.
“Most of the companies around the world have cut down on training and education programs, and that has affected business schools because there were many company-sponsored students that now need financial aid,” says Pilar Vicente, senior associate director of admissions at IE Business School.
But executives are happy to bear the cost. At INSEAD which has a campuses in France, Abu Dhabi and Singapore, 70% of EMBAs are self-funding their fees, up from 7% in 2006.
This change has forced business schools to adapt. EMBA programs have beefed up their career services and job search support to match that of the full-time MBA, as more senior students who have fiscal freedom are seeking fortunes in new areas of business.
“What is most important for our EMBAs is career coaching. Our services are targeted to improve their CVs, presentation and interaction skills, and to advise students about their career options,” says Federico.
Business schools have also had to adapt their curriculums to meet the needs of more diverse EMBA cohorts. “We have tried to support this change by increasing the number of elective courses on entrepreneurship,” Federico says.
At Warwick Business School in the UK, in addition to core modules like finance, accounting and economics, EMBAs can choose from 50 elective modules which cater for different functions.
“They can choose… Entrepreneurship and new venture creation, or e-business and IT entrepreneurship, which is very fashionable now with all the tech start-ups out there,” says Nigel Pye, assistant dean of the Warwick Executive MBA.
The increase in provision of distance learning on EMBA programs is also helping to attract students from a wider range of backgrounds.
“Our school decided to invest heavily in distance learning,” says Federico. MIP launched a new platform called Flex EMBA, where 80% of the activities are carried out through a distance learning platform, developed by Microsoft.
The program received so many applications that the school decided to roll out a second intake, which begins in April 2015. “Our students are increasingly asking for more flexibility and the opportunity to study, interact and work together in mobility,” Federico says.
Other schools have also introduced new formats. Columbia Business School in New York runs a program which is taught on Saturdays, while Henley Business School in the UK launched a Flexible Executive MBA that can be taught almost entirely through an online learning environment, according to Ashley Arnold, Henley’s director of recruitment.
Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business is testing a pilot this year which moves 25% of each core EMBA course online, says Paul Almeida, senior associate dean of executive education.
As well as choosing between distance and bricks-and mortar-learning, executives can pick from a wider range of study locations for their degrees. Business schools are offering EMBA programs in different locations through joint ventures or multiple campuses. Georgetown now teaches its degree jointly with ESADE in Spain, while the world’s highest-ranked EMBA program, Trium, is taught in France at HEC Paris, and in the UK and the US.
“The main benefits are related to networking opportunities, which are exponentially increased in these joint EMBA programs,” says Federico.
Corporate careers are still accelerated – 15% of MIP’s EMBAs move into a top management position including CEO or board member within two years of graduating – but it is clear that more options are open for today’s executives.
For Leo at Comparabien, entrepreneurship is about the freedom of controlling his own future. “We’ve had this entrepreneurial dream for some time and it’s truly exciting to do something for us – a business that is ours and not someone else’s,” he says.