Meet Three EMBAs Who Ditched The Executive Suite For Start-Up Stardom

Inspired by Facebook and Uber, EMBA graduates are betting on risky ventures

Executives used to get an MBA for a corporate edge. Among the top business school alums are Harvard’s Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase and Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s chief from Chicago Booth. Nowadays, EMBA students are just as keen to quit their jobs and found start-ups — or run ventures on the side.  

“An increasing number of students have opted to explore entrepreneurship — sometimes as entrepreneurs, sometimes as investors,” says John Gallagher, associate dean of EMBA programs at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

A survey by the Financial Times this year found that more than one-quarter of EMBA graduates reported starting their own company during their degree or since graduating — although only 40% said it was their main source of income.

This has forced business schools to shake up their exec programs, which have traditionally been the preserve of the corporate elite and for future CEOs.

“Each year participants work closely with high-growth start-ups based in Switzerland or nearby in Europe,” says Stefan Michel, EMBA director at Swiss school IMD. They then pitch their business plans to venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, he says. 

The trend is mirrored across the business education landscape, as students, inspired by the likes of Facebook, Uber or Airbnb, bet on risky ventures.

Among the school successes are BlaBlaCar, the French ridesharing business founded at INSEAD that is valued at €1.4 billion, and MIT Sloan’s Rocket Internet, the German e-commerce incubator that floated in 2014 and has a market cap of $4.6 billion.

“Entrepreneurs are driven by the prospect of opportunity,” says Donna Kelley, professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College. The environment is favourable, she says. “Technology is enabling people to start-up — even in their homes.”

Below, BusinessBecause profiles three EMBAs who ditched the executive suite for start-up stardom.

Ivan Huang

Woqu.com

China Europe International Business School

Ivan Huang, CEO and founder of Woqu.com, is on a mission to “bridge Chinese travellers and the rest of the world”. The company provides an online travel platform with an array of products and services for Chinese outbound tourists.  ivan headshot

The Shenzhen-based business fuses whizzy tech with the surging demand for leisure travel in southeast Asia’s emerging markets, offering “DIY tours” to 24 destinations, including North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

“At first it was hard for customers to get used to buying tourism products from their mobile devices,” says Ivan, a 2006 CEIBS EMBA. But now the increasing popularity of smartphones means more people are willing to swipe and buy.

The company’s 20,000 monthly users can browse two apps, Woqu Travel and a visa app that helps customers check their visa application status and complete payments.

Woqu is capitalizing on the millions of Chinese tourists flocking west. “The Chinese tourism industry has developed rapidly over the past decade,” says Ivan, fuelled by travel sites and the streamlining visa applications for Chinese in countries like Canada and the UK.

The company was launched in 2013 and has grown to have around 200 employees and about $3 million a month in sales. Last year it raised $20 million from investors including Chinese internet giant Tencent and Morningside Venture Capital.

Ivan spent a decade at China Travel Service, rising to a senior executive position, but he eventually caught the start-up bug. “I led a team of almost 2,000 employees, but I [had] never created a company,” he says.

The EMBA at CEIBS in Shanghai, which upped his management and operations skills, fostered the dream to start a business.

“I’ve gained a lot of experience and inspiration from my schoolmates,” Ivan says. “It’s like a big family: we all help each other during the process of setting up a business.”

Leo Castellanos

Comparabien

Cass Business School

Leo Castellanos, co-founder and director of Comparabien, is bringing financial comparison tools to Latin America. Comparabien, likened to Britain’s Moneysupermarket, provides an online portal focusing on financial, insurance and utility products.  leo headshot

“In the UK they didn’t exist 15 years ago, but now they are a proven way to create value,” Leo says.

The site’s 200,000 unique monthly visitors, many in the emerging middle classes, compare prices on products in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru. “These are people who for the first time are buying a house or a car, or are insuring it. If this idea will take off somewhere, it should be in Latin America,” says Leo, a Venezuelan.

He launched Comparabien in 2010 with Alfredo Ramirez, a Peruvian he met on the EMBA at Cass Business School in London — the LatAm region is close to their hearts.

The Lima-headquartered company has evolved to provide price comparisons on bank deposit rates, mortgages, credit cards and personal loans, even telecoms. It has raised around $1 million in venture capital.

There remain ambitious plans for growth: “It’s still a rollercoaster ride,” says Leo, a former senior consultant at PwC who remains a board member for seed capital group Saatchinvest.

But, he says, at big firms you can become “just another number”: “I always wanted to work with start-ups and be a part of that world.”

The EMBA in 2007 gave Leo and Alfredo the chance to form their business plan and to develop new skills. “Nothing is going to replace personal, practical experience,” Leo says. “But doing an executive program gives you the framework and the tools to mitigate the risk.”

Vikram Pradhan

SuiteStory

London Business School

Vikram Pradhan wants to get you in his beds. He’s the co-founder of SuiteStory, a start-up that offers access to luxury hotel suites. The New York and Latvia-based company’s technology allows users to customize their search by showing their likes and dislikes of suites’ features.  suite 2

Vikram says it will enable hotels to sell more rooms — just 30% of suites are occupied, he claims. “The entire suite market place is inefficient,” he says; hotels lack data to price and market their suites effectively.

The business provides an online platform and analytics solutions to its cadre of clients — including Starwood Hotels and the Ritz in London, while Mandarin Oriental is in its crosshairs.

“New York is our first priority, then it’s a race against time to ramp up in as many markets as we can,” Vikram says ambitiously.

The company’s focus on luxury suites sets it apart from big competitors like Expedia and Booking.com, he believes. When a user books a room, the hotel pays SuiteStory a fee.

Vikram, who has worked in senior management positions for a decade at hotel chains, spotted the market gap while managing revenue for 500 hotels in the US, Canada and Caribbean for Starwood.

The EMBA program at London Business School helped him pluck up the courage to launch. “I hadn’t considered entrepreneurship as an option before,” he says.

Vikram founded SuiteStory, which has six employees, six months ago with Dmitrii Beliakov, whom he met at LBS. “On the EMBA you get to know each other well — you travel, eat, and sleep together. It builds trust.”

The massive EMBA network — the program is delivered in London, New York and Hong Kong — helped to introduce the founders to a boutique hotel in Portugal, and peers have committed to invest $200,000 in the company. “It takes a village to start up,” Vikram says.

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