Saturday, January 16, 2010

Entrepreneurship is a life choice, not a job choice

I was looking at the websites supporting the various entrepreneurial programs at my alma mater, Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. There seemed to be a lot of activity until the current recession began, but since then, things have slacked off dramatically--not surprising considering the economy.

However, entrepreneurial programs at the graduate level have always had something of a checkered history. Most MBA students gravitate to the careers that pay the most. For years, that was consulting and then investment banking. In the mid- and late-90's, entrepreneurship programs took off and became the most popular programs at some schools. I suspect that the majority of those students didn't pursue entrepreneurship because they had a burning desire to found and run their own companies; rather, they saw an opportunity for quick wealth if they could take their companies public or flip them to an acquirer. When the dot-com economy collapsed, interest in entrepreneurship programs dwindled, and investment banking once again took over. (Today, I have no idea what MBA students are gravitating to.)

I believe that entrepreneurship is a life choice, not a job choice. You're either driven to create and build companies or you're not. You can teach the nuts and bolts of creating and building businesses, but not the mindset. In fact, the skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur are rarely taught in MBA programs. Graduate business programs are designed to create specialists--a student will be exposed to all the important disciplines, but they're expected to specialize in one or, as I was able to do, at most two. You graduate as a finance or marketing specialist, but to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be a generalist. You must be functionally competent in a lot of areas, including product development, sales, marketing, finance, accounting, hiring, legal issues and a lot more.

I would gently suggest to anyone looking at entrepreneurship as a "get rich quick" opportunity that you're out of your mind. I was raised in an entrepreneurial family--my parents owned a retail store, and my father often said that he was in business for himself because he was unable to work for anyone else. It was a very difficult life for them, although they made sure that my sister and I had everything we needed. For 30 years, they were always one bad Christmas season away from disaster. They survived because they were driven to survive.

For you to really be successful, you have to be driven to build a business on your own, not on someone else's payroll. No graduate program can put that drive into your blood. It's either there or it's not.

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