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Elite Business Schools Are Boosting Female Entrepreneurs — Here's How

Entrepreneurship provides greater flexibility and control over earning power

Sexism in business can appear rife, or so believes Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.

So concerned was she by stock images of women in high heels climbing ladders or sporting red boxing gloves, she launched a new picture collection with Getty Images. There’s not a Jimmy Chuo in sight.

Sandberg is part of an emerging force for women in business that spreads from the top of Silicon Valley corporations to little-known start-ups. Many of Sandberg’s peers — she earned an MBA at Harvard Business School in 1995 — are now launching their own businesses.

“The MBA was key,” says Isabel Moratiel Rodriguez, who launched the Spanish division of iwoca, a start-up that provides short-term loans to online retailers. “It gave me the frameworks to consider all factors involved in launching a start-up in Spain,” she says.

Isabel has worked at A.T Kearney and Santander Asset Management, but the degree at IESE Business School gave her the chance to reassess her career direction. Isabel appears to be part of a growing trend.

Bethany Coates, assistant dean at Stanford, believes that women are turning to entrepreneurship at the Graduate School of Business.

She points to Flavour Labs, a boutique food and hospitality start-up, which was set-up by women on Stanford’s Ignite program for entrepreneurs and recently acquired. “When our women graduates are successful, it’s a source of pride,” she says.

For female MBA graduates, entrepreneurship offers the chance to change their job prospects. Women have remained in a minority at top business schools for the past decade, according to data from AACSB, the b-school accrediting organization. And upon graduation, they can expect “glass ceilings” and persistent pay inequality.

“This may explain the increase in women leaving the corporate market to enter self-employment, providing greater flexibility and control over their earning power,” says Ginny Gibson, deputy dean at Henley Business School.

The optimism, though, is stymied by what Babson College, a top entrepreneurial business school, suggests is a male-dominated investment climate. A Babson report found 85% of all venture capital–funded businesses still have no women on the executive team. And the total number of women partners at VC firms has slipped by 6% to 10%.

“Closing the gender gap and providing greater funding opportunities for women entrepreneurs not only makes good financial sense for venture capital firms, it will also drive new economic growth and spur innovation,” says Kerry Healey, president of Babson College.

Babson’s research is backed by a 2014 study from Harvard, MIT and Wharton, which found that men are 60% more likely to get funding than women.

Bill Aulet, head of the center for entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan School of Management, says: “A lack of finance holds back entrepreneurs from scaling companies.”

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Many argue that networking is crucial in securing venture investment. For Kerry Costello, right, it was how she founded her company, HeadCheck, a mobile app that helps identify concussion, after meeting co-founder Harrison Brown at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Since incubating in UBC’s Lean Launchpad program, Kerry, who has an MBA from the Sauder School of Business, has greatly benefited from the support of peers and mentors.

“These individuals have helped us develop our sales strategy, our customer management processes, and even helped us with a partnership agreement,” she says.

Dr Muhammad Azam Roomi, senior lecturer in entrepreneurship at Cranfield School of Management, argues that networking can act as a powerful source of referrals for female entrepreneurs.

“Networks help them in finding customers, and act as an excellent word of mouth promotional strategy — saving advertisement costs,” he says.

Isabelle Delacave founded From Belgium with Love, an e-commerce platform that sells high-quality European baby brands in Australia, several years after obtaining an MBA from IE Business School. She says the degree gave her the motivation to start-up.

“Since graduation, I have always wanted to start up a business,” says Isabelle, a mother. “Entrepreneurship is the DNA of IE. I carry part of that in me.”

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Talia Geberovich, left, has a similar tale to tell. Cass Business School’s EMBA electives in new venture creation and innovation tempted her away from her corporate roots. Talia launched Do It For Mummy, a digital platform for childcare services, after working as a marketing manager at Dow Jones, the media group.

“The EMBA has been instrumental in my quest to start this venture,” she says, highlighting help from professors and the inspiration she drew from entrepreneurial classmates. “That really encouraged me,” Talia says.  

For Suzanne Dodds, who set-up Call a Cooler Pty, a start-up that provides water coolers under an environmentally conscious ethos, an MBA at UWA Business School gave her the support she needed to scale the venture.

“The support is phenomenal from professors,” she says, and there are plenty of opportunities to raise venture capital, including the Mustard Seed event, which saw students pitch for up to $800,000 in funding.

Suzanne was a country head for Appco Direct in South Korea, where she turned over $30 million and grew the unit from three to 160 employees in a year. “You definitely don’t need an MBA to launch a company,” she says. “However, I think many new businesses would do a lot better if their owners had an MBA.”

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