The MBA as powerful stepping stone into self-employment

November 15, 2016

Faculty Insight: Nikolaus Franke

Experts and MBA alumni are all agreed: if you are striving for an international career, attending a high-quality MBA program is definitely a good idea. Many, however, are unaware of the enormous benefits the right MBA can bring for people seeking to start their own businesses.

In the following interview, one of Europe's leading experts explains why this is the case: Prof. Nikolaus Franke, Academic Director of the WU Executive Academy's Professional MBA Entrepreneurship & Innovation and Head of WU Vienna's Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.

Read here about 2 alumni, who have successfully set up their own businesses during/after the MBA, speak about their experiences while starting their business, outlining the role of the MBA in this process:

  • CEEsam Marketing GmbH: Svetlana Kokurina und Ian Coles
  • RIS:App von OpenLaws GmbH und BY WASS GmbH: Clemens Wass

Nikolaus Franke at an interview
An interview with Prof. Nikolaus Franke on the MBA.

Prof. Franke, is entrepreneurship something you can learn?

Prof. Franke: You not only can but actually have to learn it. Nobody is born with the knowledge you need to identify and exploit entrepreneurial opportunities. The question, then, is how to learn the necessary knowledge and skills—solely by doing and from your mistakes, or by taking advantage of other people's knowledge and experience. We know from experience that the latter strategy is more efficient and produces better results. Of course, you also need to be gifted. It is like learning to play the violin: if you lack musical talent, even the best teacher cannot help you become a violinist. That said, without proper training, you will never progress beyond mediocrity. Moreover, you need to be courageous, willing to take risks, able to assert yourself, open-minded, creative and imaginative in order to set up your own business successfully and turn your ideas into reality.

What makes an MBA particularly valuable for people seeking to start their own businesses?

Prof. Franke: MBA programs teach participants to think in terms of markets, chances and opportunities. The ability to make things happen is the key to success. We all know the saying "There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come". As good as it may sound, this is nonsense, I am afraid. The best idea is worthless if you lack the knowledge and skills to make your business benefit from it. A high-quality MBA program is ideally suited to fill this gap. It allows participants to acquire the necessary know-how in a highly practical manner and gives them access to an excellent network of professional contacts that entrepreneurs will find particularly helpful.

In this context, it may be worth noting that employees can also be entrepreneurs. They are then what is known as intrapreneurs—in management, too, thinking independently and being proactive, creative as well as assertive have arguably come to be the most important skills. After all, there is a worldwide race to innovate!

How important is the personality in this context for the class?

Prof. Franke: The diversity of students is the basis for the team spirit among them and provides a natural seedbed for entrepreneurship. In our programs, engineers meet creative professionals, and managers study side by side with scientists, for instance. Because participants have diverse backgrounds and come from a wide range of companies, there is no negative competition. What unites them is that they are highly-qualified and ambitious professionals pursuing a common goal. This makes it easy for them to make friends and, above all, to build a network of professional contacts, which is an incredibly valuable asset.

WU Executive Academy building
The right MBA is based on many factors including the international influence within the classroom and the quality of the instructors.

What else should aspiring entrepreneurs bear in mind when choosing the right MBA program for them?

Prof. Franke: Internationality is an important aspect. This applies to students and lecturers as much as it applies to the curriculum. During international residencies, for instance, students enormously broaden their horizons—they get to discover fresh perspectives and develop a completely new understanding of entrepreneurial opportunities. Students also learn to take cultural differences into account and can familiarize themselves with the special characteristics of the local market.

Lecturers are crucial too: the more international the expert faculty, the greater the variety, the impetus for thought and the inspiration. This in turn boosts creativity and motivation to implement (professional) ideas together. Experiencing the familiar from an unfamiliar perspective requires students to readapt—and thus simulates the realities of today's business world.

You have mentioned the business world. How important is that MBA programs reflect practical realities, and how does the WU Executive Academy bring theory and practice together?

Prof. Franke: One of our top priorities in developing our curricula is to ensure that programs convey new knowledge and skills in as practical a manner as possible. The topic of entrepreneurship is taken up and integrated into participants' own professional contexts during many small-scale "experiments"—our famous cases. As a result, our students also develop a skill that is particularly important in entrepreneurship: they learn how to identify and exploit opportunities.

An additional benefit of our part-time programs is their modular structure: after spending some days in class, participants return to work, allowing them to take immediate practical advantage of their newly acquired know-how. During the next module, they can then share their experience with their classmates.

Are there any other ways MBA students can be offered practical insights during their training?

Prof. Franke: Yes, of course. We have launched a special executive insight series for our programs. The basic idea is to regularly invite leading managers, entrepreneurs and experts to share their real-world experience on topics related to the current module with our students. They frequently pass on pieces of advice that you would not normally get.

Investors and business angels, too, have valuable tips to share—start-up financing is always a concern for a new business. Apart from providing inspiration and enriching the regular MBA training, the executive insight series is a great opportunity for our students to establish valuable contacts for their future careers.

What else?

Prof. Franke: Each student is required to write a Master's thesis, in which he or she works on a specific problem, ideally one arising from his or her own professional practice, to solve it practically by using the knowledge and skills acquired during the program. Many students take this opportunity to draw up detailed business plans. This can be the first step towards becoming self-employed or starting your own business. Only recently did I speak to one of our graduates who used his Master's thesis as a starting point for setting up his own business. As you can imagine, I am always thrilled to hear of such a positive outcome.

And how important is theory?

Prof. Franke: There is nothing more practical than a good theory, so the saying goes. Of course, this is true only of a clear and easily comprehensible theory that is designed to solve real-world problems. Ivory-tower intellectualism and purely academic exercises are of little help, and that is why they are not part of our curricula. Instead, we help students develop their ability to grasp connections and use the right tools at the right time for the right purpose.

It is thanks to this academic excellence that MBA programs of a renowned university give participants a decisive competitive edge. Our programs reflect the latest trends, research results and academic insights. This know-how gives entrepreneurs an enormous head-start. They learn to lift their heads and see the bigger picture, enabling them to spot new opportunities. It is this very combination of academic rigor with practical relevance that is the strong point of MBA programs.

There are also MBA programs with a specialization option in entrepreneurship & innovation, like the one offered by the WU Executive Academy. What additional benefit can those seeking to become self-employed derive from such a specialization compared to a "traditional", general program?

Prof. Franke: Broader and deeper expertise. Apart from giving a broad overview of all the general business topics, such programs allow participants to acquire the know-how that is of particular benefit to entrepreneurs: this includes specific knowledge on the subject of change and novelty: how to recognize change, how to lead change. And, most importantly: how to exploit entrepreneurial opportunities by taking advantage of change. Going one step further, we at the WU Executive Academy organize an international residency that takes our students to one of the hottest places when it comes to venture capital, start-ups and technology: Boston. There, they can experience pitches first-hand and network with the world's leading venture capitalists.

Boston is the mecca of entrepreneurship and a training hotspot for (aspiring) entrepreneurs: it is home to Harvard, MIT, Babson or the Boston College, to name but a few examples. Participants not only study at our local partner universities. In the afternoons, they also visit some of the world's innovation leaders such as Innocentive, a crowd-sourcing pioneer; MassChallenge, a start-up accelerator; or the Cambridge Innovation Center, which offers the perfect infrastructure for young businesses seeking to establish themselves in the region. There is no one who has not been electrified by this experience.

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