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The Wharton MBA Who Started One Of The World’s Biggest Business School Rankings

Nunzio Quacquarelli knew he wanted to start his own business from the age of 14. At Wharton, he developed his idea for QS Quacquarelli Symonds, a leading provider of business school rankings

Mon Sep 17 2018

Choosing a business school is no easy feat.

Let’s face it: there’s a lot of data out there. Different rankings tables with different methodologies compare a variety of MBA and master’s programs. But at least the information is there to help prospective business school students make an informed decision.

That wasn’t the case when Nunzio Quacquarelli—a young consultant a few years out of a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge—was deciding on a graduate business school.

Back in the late 1980s, there were no Financial Times MBA rankings. It was only in 1990 that US News & World Report launched its business school rankings as we know them today.

Nunzio knew he wanted to start his own business—that, along with a desire to go to business school, had been at the forefront of his mind since age 14. But Nunzio had no easy way to compare schools.

Instead, he did his own research. He looked into the backgrounds of the partners of the consulting firm he was working for and where they went to business school. From that analysis, he says, Harvard and Wharton emerged as by far the strongest options.

In 1988, Nunzio relocated to the Philadelphia and started his MBA at Wharton.
“Back then, the choice was full-time MBA or nothing—it was quite easy to do basic research,” he recalls fondly. “Today, you’ve got full-time MBA programs, online MBAs, specialist master’s in management, finance, business analytics—there’s so many different choices.

“At Wharton, I started developing a business plan for QS as part of a student project,” he continues. “We were the first company to be given incubator space at Wharton, and we developed the business from there.”

QS Quacquarelli Symonds started on campus at Wharton, publishing career and education guides for international students. Now, QS is a leading higher education company—hiring 250-plus employees across five continents—best known for its World University Rankings.

Published in September each year, QS’s MBA rankings include over 200 business schools and are heavily influenced by an independently conducted survey of employers, which garnered over 40,000 responses in 2018.

Nunzio says his mission is to help people replicate the kind of business school experience he had; to guide them to choose the best fit school and career path.

For Nunzio personally, that career path has always been clear. “My father ran a chain of restaurants as an Italian immigrant into the UK. Being half-Italian but also growing up in the north of England, a lot of the rode models I had were entrepreneurs,” he says. “From a young age, I had a pretty clear view of how I wanted my career to progress.”

Age 14, when Nunzio decided he’d one day be an entrepreneur, a friend of his father’s—a senior academic at Manchester Business School—introduced him to the idea of going to b-school. Later, when the time came to apply, Nunzio’s entire application centered on his aim to start his own business—although back then an MBA was by no means a typical path for a budding entrepreneur.

“I was definitely in a small minority at the time at Wharton,” Nunzio explains. “It was a completely different era and starting a business was much higher risk in 1990 than it is today—you didn’t have all these angel investors and private equity firms willing to underwrite it.

“My thinking was that the MBA would be an insurance policy. Firstly, it would enable me to develop the skills to be more likely to be successful as an entrepreneur. Secondly, if I failed as an entrepreneur, I would have a backup qualification that would let me to re-enter consulting.”

Ultimately, Nunzio became the first member of his Italian family to go to business school. He majored in entrepreneurship and finance at Wharton, and he built QS into what it is today.

What advice does he have for MBAs today thinking of starting their own business? Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nunzio says research is key.

“One of the benefits of an MBA is you have a year or two years where you do some of that research and get advice and mentorship throughout that research period. Yes, there’s a cost associated with it. But having that time to research your idea more thoroughly can save you far more in terms of wasted investment and opportunity cost later on.”

From the startup to the corporate world, Nunzio knows careers today are more diverse and less clear cut than ever before. Advances in tech are disrupting jobs and industries, and people are less likely to work for the same company for their entire professional lives.

“When I look at my own kids,” Nunzio continues, “I see that I was lucky I had such a clear focus.

“Because careers are changing so quickly, I think many young people are far less clear about what they want to do and so the research and process they have to go through—when thinking about careers and education—is more complicated than mine.”

Still, over a quarter of a century after founding QS, that’s where Nunzio is trying to help.

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