Is Business Success Measured in Degrees?

By Heather Baker, an EO UK-London member, and founder and CEO of TopLine Communications, a digital communications consultancy

An article I read recently got me thinking: How many of the entrepreneurs I know have earned a university degree? Two thirds? Half? A better question is: How many of the graduates among them, if they could go back, would enroll all over again for those years of cloistered (or not so cloistered) study?

If my experience is anything to go by, I think the vote would be split. I did go to university, and looking back it was in parts very useful, in parts not at all. And I know several entrepreneurs who boast great business talent having never seen the inside of a lecture theatre. Which isn’t to say that higher education will not equip you for a career as an entrepreneur; I believe it can. However, I would stop short of calling it a necessary condition of business success.

The author of that article, Christian Nellemann, who founded telecoms company XLN, says that university is an essential rite of passage for young entrepreneurs, and the success of his business ventures certainly earned him my attention. But I say a university degree isn’t for everybody. Here’s why.

There’s been a lot written in the press recently about whether or not university prepares young people for life in business. Learning institutions, from school level up, are under pressure to offer courses that impart knowledge with sturdy, real-life applications. The idea being that you enter the world of business three or four years later a better, more rounded entrepreneur or employee in the making. The ideal university degree, according to this logic, would really be a kind of business simulator in which students pass or fail instead of getting rich or going bust. A kind of low-stakes, bubble-wrapped business experience.

Well, that’s all very well and good, but there are other ways to learn. You might even try actually working in business for the same period, finding a job straight out of school. Or investing the money you would have spent on tuition fees on starting your first business. Sure, you might never get onto a grad scheme, but by the time your schoolmates are suffering psychometric tests and group interviews, you could be the one judging their performance in team-building exercises as they fight for an internship at your startup.

Some of the most formidable business minds I know gave university a side step and went on to build their projects. Maybe some people are born for business; maybe they just have more to prove and put their headstart to good use. Or, perhaps more likely, there may be no direct causal link.

When considering the education route, some will say that in the grand scheme of things a few years is nothing. But try telling that to the software entrepreneur who sees a new market blooming or the pop-up restaurateur with a plan to capitalise on the newest craze for Cronuts™, or whatever happens to be the next pastry-based portmanteau product (I’ve already trademarked the Praffle, my salty lattice mash-up of the pretzel and the waffle). Sometimes, timing is everything, and business waits for no one, no matter how many letters they have after their name.

There are, of course, lots of things university is great for, learning being prime among them. My MBA, which I gained when my digital communications consultancy was just a few years old, was massively helpful in giving me a broader, deeper understanding of business and finance. Before that, I studied psychology at under-grad and post-grad level (yes, I had my fair share of university), and on the surface these studies seem far removed from the business world I find myself in now. But every now and again I find myself in a situation in which I can draw on some wisdom from those years. It might be during a tough negotiation or when I need to make a decision about company strategy; in one way or another, those formative years spent meeting new people and learning new things have helped me in business.

My point is that there are many ways to gain valuable experience that could contribute to the success of your entrepreneurial endeavours – university is just one of them. My MBA taught me a lot about business, but starting my own taught me more. University gave me access to amazing networks of talented, interesting individuals, but so has EO. And as for learning, that never stops. I gain more useful knowledge about running a business by reading books during my commute and putting new ideas into practice in the office- and making mistakes while doing it, no bubble wrap in sight.

Let’s open the comments up for a straw poll. Did you go to university? And if so, did it make you a better entrepreneur? If you didn’t go, do you wish you had?

Categories: Best Practices Entrepreneurial Journey


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