Harvard MBA Breaks The Bain & Co Mould For Entrepreneurship

Harvard Business School MBA Stirling Cox used to be an investment banker at JPMorgan, and later a management consultant at Bain & Co. But b-school helped him realize his entrepreneurial ambition.

Before Stirling Cox landed a job at JPMorgan Chase, the leading United States finances firm, and before he got an MBA from Harvard Business School, he took a gap year and went backpacking around the world.

It was a trip of self-discovery that altered his career ambitions. And when he got back to the UK, changes had to be made.

“I came back with dreams and ambitions, and I saw that my classmates from LSE had spent the year in banking being miserable, and that worried me,” says Stirling. “I did really enjoy the role but a lot of junior work doesn’t go anywhere; it didn’t make a huge amount of difference.”

Demotivating enough for any fresh graduate, he agrees. “It’s not exciting when your work doesn’t matter. It becomes tedious. And I didn’t see myself becoming a manager at an investment bank,” he says.

Compared to most Harvard graduates, Stirling has somewhat broken the mould. After beginning an MBA at the leading Ivy League school, he turned instead to entrepreneurship – a far cry from investment banking with the Wall Street behemoths.

Although some HBS MBAs go into the start-up grind, the majority stick to the corporate fast-track. And there is no doubt that Harvard is one of the best at producing them; over 90 per cent of their MBAs are in employment within a few months of graduating.

Yet, of last year’s full-time MBA cohort, the majority (42 per cent) came into the program from economics and business backgrounds, and a majority (26 per cent) went into the finance function after graduation.

HBS also claim that 50 per cent of their grads “become entrepreneurs by the time they are 15 years out of school” – although most bank on consulting or financial services in the short-term. But there is a minority who prefer the life of the entrepreneur.

7 per cent of and second-year students accepted full-time or internship positions at a start-up, and 9 per cent of those set to graduate in 2014 joined a start-up for their summer internship.

The perception that traditional functions are best suited to those with business backgrounds could explain the gap. When Stirling broke into JPMorgan, after a BSc in Management Sciences, he didn’t really know what investment banking entailed.

“I got the job that everyone wanted and I assumed it was what I should take,” he reflects. “It was the big thing that everyone wanted to do.”

By the time he quit in 2006, he had a more thought-out plan. “In the back of my mind I knew I wanted to run a business one day or start my own, but I wasn’t ready,” he says. Stirling thought an MBA degree would be ideal. “But what about after the MBA?” he asks.

He had heard of management consulting, another business graduate staple, and decided it was a good industry to enter after graduation. “But it was stupid to wait and do unenjoyable work [in investment banking] so I decided to try it before my MBA, and earn some money towards the tuition,” Stirling explains.

There is no doubt his salary at Bain & Company, the leading firm that he then spent two years at, would saddle much of that cost. It is one of the most sought-after employers in the MBA jobs world.

But he had the same “daunting” realization: “Where am I going in this career? I was on the partner track and once you know you’re set to get to a certain rank, it becomes less exciting. I wanted a bigger challenge,” he says.

That challenge came in the form of Harvard – a school that has sat atop of many an MBA Ranking table for several years. Stirling wanted time to think about what he wanted to do with his career, to learn from some of the best in the b-school business and to build a network.

He was torn between HBS and Stanford. But, as we all know, he says, “Harvard’s Harvard”. But the application process is rigorous. He knew a few students already at the school, but insists connections don’t help.

Networking is one of the most important parts of any MBA degree. And with the quality on offer in Harvard cohorts, most students would be licking their lips at the prospect of learning from their class. As Fredrik Marø, a Harvard MBA graduate, put it: “Every single lunch hour at Harvard, somebody was helping somebody else with their resume, giving them a mock interview or giving them tips,” he told BusinessBecause.

But Stirling wasn’t able to leverage the network in quite such a fashion. You might argue he missed a trick, but he doesn’t see it that way. “There’s a slight misconception on the value of the network,” he says. “You often forget that there are 400 other classmates reaching out to same alumni.

“It has been amazing getting to know such a smart bunch of people in one place, and I’m sure in long run it will become more and more valuable. But I haven’t tried to leverage it yet.”

What Harvard did give him, though, was the spark to realize his entrepreneurial passion. He was always exposed to entrepreneurship growing up; his father ran a real-estate agency and Stirling used to get experience with the firm every summer from the age of six.

So when at business school, it seemed the perfect place to develop business ideas and even launch companies in a relatively low-risk environment. Stirling spent the first year of the program developing two start-up ideas, until eventually settling on an entrepreneurial role at AlphaSights, the information services firm, which was looking to open a new branch of business in the States.

Stirling was about to go “full-steam ahead” with a start-up idea based on taxi services, until he bumped into an old mentor that set up AlphaSights.

“We had a drink together and he mentioned they were looking for someone to run a separate business for them in the US. The role made sense for me; it was entrepreneurship with guidance and structure,” Stirling says.

Flash forward to 2014 and he is the Managing Director of their North America arm – and the business has now grown to about the same size as their UK operations.

When I ask how an MBA from Harvard has helped him achieve in entrepreneurship, his answer is surprising. “Not that much. I loved doing it but I don’t think it can teach you how to actually run a business,” he explains.

He points out the many business leaders that dropped out of college before adding: “Is it the best place to do it [start a business]? No. It’s not the best place to build a company because you walk away with debt.”

Yet, it turned him from investment banker and management consultant to entrepreneur. And whether it was the ideal place to start a business or not (indeed, many argue b-school is not necessary), an MBA has led to Stirling landing a job that seems to be an ideal fit.

And you’d be mad to suggest an MBA from the brand that is Harvard wouldn’t beef up your CV – or sure-up confidence with start-up investors.

So what about those that aren’t attending Ivy League schools, MBAs with start-up ambition who are investing thousands in a business education elsewhere? “There is a value. If you’re going to do an MBA, do it for the right reasons: for the network, for the brand, and go there to learn as much as you can,” Stirling replies.

“Could I have done this while going to another school? Probably. But would I recommend it? No. It’s a huge amount of money to spend. You need to learn from other driven people.”

Perhaps that’s the secret to business school. You can sacrifice names and branding if your fellow classmates contribute to your success.

Stirling might not have leveraged the network, but, clearly, it can make or break your investment. Even for those that break the mould and choose entrepreneurship. 

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