I was browsing on LinkedIn a few days ago and came across this article by my former high school classmate Steven Chan. His article reflects on his experiences on his recent graduation from NYU (congrats!). It presents an interesting view of entrepreneurship from a student’s perspective.
Right out of the gate, Chan writes the key takeaway (emphasis mine):
As the tech scene and entrepreneurship seem to have exploded over the past few years, I think most students have begun to realize that wealth or whatever people consider success is not solely restricted to the old or experienced. Hence, the number of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship offerings in school has skyrocketed in response to this trend. However, based on my interaction with some of my peers, I have come to realize one thing: business school will ruin you.
He goes forward on listing five major flaws that undergraduate business students take on.
Here’s my take on a point by point basis:
You think you’re too good for social media
…Business school has a way of inflating your ego to a point where an opportunity to learn outside the classroom rather than in it becomes an insult rather than an opportunity for self-improvement.
Although I wouldn’t have used such a harsh tone, I agree with the sentiment. If you pass a class, it does not qualify you as an expert. This is hubris fostered by the Google generation. If you believe that taking one class or researching one wikipedia article has given you just enough information to get by, you are deeply mistaken. You will be challenged by reality. You will be tested in the field.
When you apply to jobs, especially in the tech sector, it’s very easy to brag and exaggerate your accomplishments and capabilities. It’s much harder to perform right out of the gate. Theoretical understanding versus practical application will become prescient.
You’re rarely going to use those formulas/models/numbers.
I think if I had to summarize business school in a sentence, it would be “increase revenue, cut overhead.”
Another issue is that the focus on learning about such minute details in business only prepares you for something like being an accountant, not a business leader. I randomly grabbed a 300-page textbook and skimmed it just to see how relevant it would be to starting a business. Do you really need to know what “days payables outstanding” or “cash conversion cycle” mean? I’m sure it’s helpful to some extent, but probably not a necessity.
I believe Chan’s point is to not rely on formulas as the “save-all” tool but to think about the spirit of business, the bigger picture. However, this comes from a one-sided, flawed perspective.
An effective business leader understands how to blend intuition and numbers for the success of their business. You need both the spirit and the formulas to succeed in your business.
As an individual who had to teach himself basic accounting skills to manage a print shop, these basic principles are a prerequisite to success. They help you grapple with the realities of the business. Understanding “days payables outstanding” is the difference between buying a pool table for your office or paying your bills to vendors on time.
Reliance on just one factor and dismissing another is foolish and a recipe for disaster.
Jay-Z’s “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” does not apply to you.
Although there has been a shift towards entrepreneurship, business schools for the most part still want you to go into the corporate world, specifically investment banking, because it means more endowment contribution from graduates. Being an entrepreneur means not working for anyone but yourself, not because it’s the cool thing to do but because it goes against the very fiber of your being. I’ll be damned if I bust my ass so that someone takes 90% of what I earn while s/he is sitting on the toilet.
I disagree with Chan here. It doesn’t take into account all types of lifestyles students face before, during, and after their academic careers.
I’ve had the entrepreneurship spirit burning in me for a very long time. However, there are realities that I’ve faced that most students straight out of university don’t understand. Paying for your rent and thinking about how to pay for groceries. Working 60 hour weeks because your parents are sick. Being the sole provider of income for the household. Taking care of errands and still maintaining a healthy social and family balance.
Students who go to school don’t have to worry about the food on their plates. They have loans that are co-signed by parents who struggle to pay the minimum payment while they are out and about experimenting with ideas in their dorm room. Of course, parents do this to provide a student time and money to grow with the expectation of a return (in the form of a career or stable income). However, don’t be fooled. If the well ran dry for you as a student, the reality will hit and you will be forced to make ends meet. Entrepreneurship doesn’t sound so realistic when you have to eat.
But you don’t have to take it from me. This Quora thread addresses the sentiment of flawed entrepreneurship thinking better than I could. Cut and dry, most people prefer stability, steady growth, and reliability over volatility, risk, and chances.
You’re one of those people from District 1.
From my understanding, business school is highly competitive with their crazy curves and grade cutoffs. What business school does well is foster an environment for the Hunger Games, where each student has to be cut-throat and hustle to beat the person next to them. When you enter the startup world, or at least in NYC, you start to see that entrepreneurs actually prefer collaboration. A lot of entrepreneurs actually like to provide feedback and advice. They recognize that success is never a one-man job, it is always a team effort.
Entrepreneurship and start-ups are not a happy-go-lucky scenario. Chan clearly hasn’t seen the likes of Y Combinator or TechCrunch Disrupt. Startup incubators and venture capitalists recreate the same competitive environment to eliminate the hard work of weeding out failures from successes. The business world can and will be ruthless. That doesn’t mean you should become a beacon of cynicism but do be forewarned and cognizant of its reality.
However, Chan brings it back to the plate:
Whether we’re an Einstein or not, not a single one of us knows all the answers (except maybe Google). We all live different lives and have different perspectives, and if anything, there is at least one thing someone knows that you and I do not. Two brains will always be better than one, because (1) having an extra person offers a different perspective and ideas and (2) that brain comes with helping hands, a mouth, and some other stuff. I’m sure we all had that one person in the group who did little to contribute to the group or pretty much anything they say was stupid. It’s not that they weren’t useful, it’s that s/he was not being utilized effectively. Collaboration teaches you to recognize individual strengths and weaknesses, and how melding talent within the group can create a high functioning unit.
Business, or any cohesive, unified team effort benefits from these sentiments. It’s a balancing act between collaboration and competition.
You are taught in a box, and so you think in a box.
…Entrepreneurs see the world differently — they ask questions, they associate seemingly different ideas, they bridge gaps and connect ideas. This is why I think entrepreneurship cannot be taught in a classroom. To be an entrepreneur is to be willing to experiment, to learn as you go, to take ownership of your lack of knowledge, and to proactively fill that gap in knowledge. But more importantly, entrepreneurs have an insatiable thirst for a challenge and an adventure. With education and its focus on point-based metrics and multiple choice answers, the very idea of teaching (and grading) entrepreneurship is contradictory.
I want to address three points.
First point: Students are taught in a box because a frame of reference is easier to grapple than lofty aspirations. It’s up to the student to nourish their discovery process. Thinking outside the box is not an attribute reserved for entrepreneurs. This is a mindset that must be pursued from a fire burning in the heart.
Second point: The real world tests you just as much as your professors do. It’s more of a cut throat approach, clearer than a multiple-choice answer. Running a business probably won’t test you on the principles of game theory. However, consumers will determine if your product is worth paying for or not. Passing or failing in the real world is passing or failing your business, your investors, your employees, your vendors, your customers, and your finances. When you see a negative balance or a poor credit rating for your business because of reckless thinking and decision making, you’ll ask yourself why you didn’t see it sooner.
Final point: Metrics are a form of guidance. Grading is a form of guidance. But remember, this is just guidance. Having the guidance means making an informed decision. Taking knowledge of the classroom and fusing it with real world experience is the key ingredient in fulfilling the entrepreneurship idealism.
Overall, I disagree with the sentiment that you shouldn’t go to business school. In fact, you should consider it if you can make the investment. It’s a central location to garner connections, bounce off ideas, and absorb information. However, how you choose to wield your degree is what will distinguish you from those who succeed and those who will coast by. Of course business school is not a quick fix for entrepreneurship. But neither is your lofty aspirations.
Entrepreneurship is not the fix-all for all of our world problems. You need business people. You need visionaries. You need accountants. You need developers. And even designers like me. You don’t have to have all these strengths in one being. Understanding and recognizing their (and business school’s) value is what you need to become a better entrepreneur. Those who recognize the value of both will reap the benefits.