Which MBA Would Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos Recommend?

February 12, 2021

A checklist

An incredibly successful business is not the only thing the founders of Tesla and Amazon have in common. They both also have a critical opinion of MBA programs. Both top managers claim: many programs are so fixated on business finance and key indicators that they blur their participants’ view of what is really important for an entrepreneur, namely creating value for customers with creativity and passion. So which criteria would an MBA program have to meet in order to get endorsed by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos? Prof. Nikolaus Franke, Academic Director of the Professional MBA Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the WU Executive Academy, took a close look at their reasons - and came up with a checklist.

Pic of a woman deciding for an MBA
What criteria must an MBA meet to convince top entrepreneurs like Musk and Bezos?

Criterion #1: Does the MBA Serve to Boost Entrepreneurial Creativity?

Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk consider innovation key for entrepreneurial success. For them, it’s not enough to perfect somebody else’s idea – you have to brave untraveled paths. As Jeff Bezos has put it, “One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” So innovation should be a core component of an MBA program and students should receive concrete suggestions and inspiration. Do students get to meet inspiring professors, visiting lecturers, industry experts, and entrepreneurs in the course of the program? Is there room for debate and exchange? Does the participants’ diversity create a stimulating environment? Do they hail from different companies, industries, and countries? Do their educational backgrounds differ? Is a former physics major seated next to a legal expert, an IT professional next to a museum director? As Elon Musk once said, “What makes innovative thinking happen…? I think it’s really a mindset.”

Pic of an MBA class
How inspiring are the lecturers, the students, the learning environment? These are all important criteria of an MBA.

Criterion #2: Is it Application-Oriented?

If you’re going to invent, it means you're going to experiment,” Jeff Bezos is known to have said. Innovation comes from trying out new things. If you want to learn to think like an entrepreneur, you will have to apply theory to practice, draw your lessons from mistakes, and make a continuous effort to evolve. Practice is also high up in Elon Musk’s book: “Step away from spreadsheets and get out of the boardroom.” With regard to an MBA, these are the questions you should ask: Are practical case studies part of the program? Can the tools and methods used maybe even be applied to students’ individual challenges? Do participants get high-quality feedback? Is the MBA thesis a purely academic conjecture or a practical application of theory put to use in a concrete project?

Criterion #3: Is There Plenty of Team Work? Does Group Size Abide by the Two-Pizza Rule?

The class size in many MBA programs is huge. A group of over 100 students is the rule rather than the exception, even at top business schools. Jeff Bezos, however, is a firm believer in the so-called two-pizza rule: “If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, it’s too large.” Small groups are flexible, fast on their feet, and can focus on content instead of having to waste time on coordination. Innovation is a team effort, and an exchange of ideas works most effectively in small groups. “It’s like a sports team, the team that has the best individual player will often win, but then there’s a multiplier from how those players work together,” Elon Musk has said. The conclusions to be drawn here for an entrepreneurial MBA are: How large are the classes? Are team work and group assignments within the individual classes part of the program? Are classes a salad bowl of separate individuals or is there a spirit of collaboration and community that brings forth an output that would have been unattainable for one person alone?

Pic of an MBA Team having pizza lunch
Two-Pizza-Rule as the maximum team and group size - on the job and in the MBA.

Criterion #4: Does the MBA Provide for Networking Opportunities in the Entrepreneurship Ecosystem?

Jeff Bezos attaches great importance to networks as “there’ll always be serendipity involved in discovery.” Of course, it won’t do to just rack up contacts. “Life’s too short to hang out with people who aren’t resourceful,” Elon Musk once mused. A quality network and knowing how to use it effectively are indispensable. For the MBA ecosystem, ask yourself: Does the MBA program offer sufficient opportunities to connect with start-ups, entrepreneurs, investors, entrepreneurship centers, incubators, and all the other players in the start-up ecosystem?

Criterion #5: Are Teaching Contents Research-Based?

According to Jeff Bezos, it is important to always keep the big picture in mind even as you focus on important details and incremental steps to be taken in the present: “What we need to do is always lean into the future,” he has said, admonishing those prone to excessive navel-gazing. Elon Musk is also convinced that there are principles, realizations, and connections that stay true regardless of changing circumstances. “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree – make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details, or there is nothing for them to hang on to.” These remarks speak for the two men’s high regard for research. If you are looking for an MBA that meets also this requirement of the two exceptional entrepreneurs, you should ask: Do leading international researchers teach in the MBA program? Do they introduce students to new perspectives and novel, future-oriented concepts? While application and case studies cannot be overestimated, it is just as important to derive fundamental principles and timeless tools from them to be successful in the future.

And What’s the Takeaway Here?

MBA programs meeting these criteria might not be a guarantee for later entrepreneurial success. They can only provide a fertile breeding ground. In the end, students decide their own fate. Only those who have an entrepreneurial mindset already as students, i.e. who use and creatively develop offers, resources, and opportunities, will be able to turn the MBA program into a ticket to success. Sounds difficult? Don’t worry; just trust Elon Musk on this: “I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can.

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