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EMBA Programs Evolve To Turn Corporate Chiefs Into Entrepreneurs

Executive students sick with enterprise fever

By  Seb Murray

Wed Dec 2 2015

Oscar Zeballos doesn’t care about cash. A broadcaster with a dazzling media career, Oscar quit to found a podcast technology start-up, Free App Company. What makes his risk even more outlandish is that he is scaling up while forking out for an Executive MBA that costs $117,900.

“The EMBA experience at Smith — and especially the experience through the entrepreneurial Action Learning Projects — really opened my eyes,” says Oscar, at the US’ Robert H. Smith School of Business.

It widened his gaze to not just the administrative side of company launch, but how to create efficiencies. “I was making money but… I realized I could have been even more successful in the early stages,” says Oscar. He is one of a swelling number of executive students who are prepared to quit potential corporate stardom for the travails of start-up life.   

“As seasoned executives, these EMBA students have exposure to a variety of opportunities and problems in the market to come up with really viable business ideas,” says Elana Fine, managing director of Smith’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship.

While the frothy market for entrepreneurial education has exploded through master’s and online courses, the EMBA, once the preserve of the corporate elite, is tucking in.

“Enterprise fever is catching on among our EMBAs,” says Silvia McCallister-Castillo, program director for London Business School’s EMBA-Global. As more execs get the start-up bug, they form an ecosystem of entrepreneurs launching, joining, and investing in each other’s companies. “It’s infectious,” Silvia says.

London, where StartUp Britain says nearly 200,000 start-ups were launched last year, is a top backdrop for students to explore their new-fangled entrepreneurial ambition. But the trend for EMBAs to jump on the start-up bandwagon is global, from Paris and California to Berlin and Shanghai.

london tech

At CEIBS in China, as many as 40% of EMBA students are already entrepreneurs, with even more eyeing the founder title. “There is a growing interest in entrepreneurship,” says Professor Charles Chen, director of CEIBS’ Mandarin language EMBA.

Business schools the world over are scrambling to offer executives a platform to launch. Many are incubating promising ideas, providing seed and venture capital, upping entrepreneurship modules, and others like CEIBS are even prepping students to return to companies as “intraptrenepeurs” to drive innovation from within. “Some have set up joint ventures with their employers,” Charles says.

One reason for the increased appetite for risk among EMBAs is that many are no longer bound by company sponsorships. More than 40% of students received no funding from their employer this year, according to figures from the Executive MBA Council.

The trend also mirrors a surge in interest in start-ups across business education portfolios. The percentage of MBA students founding companies at Stanford GSB and Babson College, two top US schools for example, is around 40%. Alison Davis-Blake, dean of Michigan Ross School of Business, says: “Interest in entrepreneurship grows at a rapid pace.”

At Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, the EMBA curriculum has evolved to suit the changing needs of students. Fuqua has offered an increasing number of elective courses, a post-graduate certification in entrepreneurship, and a customizable application project.

“An increasing number of students have opted to explore entrepreneurship — sometimes as entrepreneurs, sometimes as investors, and at other times through the lens of ‘intrepreneurship’,” says John Gallagher, associate dean of EMBA programs.

As a part of the learning journey at IMD, a top Swiss business school, each EMBA class will spend a week in California’s Silicon Valley. “Our students put themselves in the shoes of entrepreneurs,” says EMBA director Stefan Michel, to understand how to create ventures from scratch, how to convince venture capitalists to back them, and how to scale up to reach global markets.

IMD’s program has since 1999 supported 200 local Swiss start-ups. Current cohorts are working with FaceShift, ScanTrust and SmartCardia — all ranked among Switzerland’s most promising ventures.  

Entrepreneurial opportunities are often shaped by regional trends. EMBA programs have become increasingly international: many of the top-ranked are offered jointly by institutions across continents. For LBS, whose program is spread across London, New York and Hong Kong, local incubators have strong ties to the school. “Without the right community, being an entrepreneur can be a lonely business,” Silvia says.

But this presents challenges too, alongside having to squeeze entrepreneurship classes into already packed schedules and striking the right balance between practise and theory.

“Business schools have long been faced with the challenge of providing knowledge that is relevant and current,” says CEIBS’ Charles. “This is especially challenging in China, where the pace is extremely fast.”

For Talia Geberovich, Cass Business School’s EMBA electives in new venture creation and innovation tempted her away from her corporate roots. They helped Talia launch Do It For Mummy, a digital platform for childcare services.

“The Executive MBA has been instrumental in my quest to start this venture,” says Talia, who prior to the EMBA worked as marketing manager at Dow Jones, the media group.

In addition to the courses she benefited from a mentor, Professor Vangelis Souitaris, who helped her assess the business plan. “Some of my classmates have started their own ventures as well, and that really encouraged me,” she says.