There’s no such thing as an average entrepreneur. Sure, as a group they may share some common traits, like a fondness for risk and its reward, but when it comes to entrepreneurial higher learning, there’s no one-size-fits-all. That’s why variety and flexibility are in high demand at Australia’s best business schools. Here, Jodie O’Keeffe gets the low down on higher learning from some above-average achievers.
While no one denies that the letters MBA will bolster anyone’s resume, most entrepreneurs choose higher education not to increase their chances at that next job interview, but to fill a skills gap crucial to the success of their business. Far from being average students, entrepreneurs are keen to learn and even keener to apply that learning where and when it counts.
That’s why business courses are being designed to fulfil the diverse needs of today’s high achievers, with flexible course offerings across a wide range of subjects and elective options for more customised learning. From a Graduate Certificate, usually taking six months full-time, through to Graduate Diploma (up to two years), Master’s (up to three years), Executive Master’s and Doctorate level (often anyone’s guess), Australian business schools offer a workable option for anyone looking to improve their chance of business success. And rather than giving up the day job, many courses encourage the development of a business during the course, further blurring the lines between work and study.
Of course, there are a million different reasons to sign up for higher learning; here are just a few of them…
Justin Robinson, CEO Tuscon Consulting
The back story:
Justin Robinson, 36, enjoyed nine years investment banking in Europe before moving to Brisbane in 2004. It was a calculated move by the Victorian native: “I returned to the warm weather. Also, Brisbane was growing so rapidly, with a lot of opportunity for business creation.”
With business ideas in mind, Robinson enrolled in an Executive MBA at QUT’s Brisbane Graduate School of Business in January 2005. “I had completed my CPA qualification and wanted the general grounding of an MBA to start my own business.”
The Executive MBA runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday, once a month over 22 months. Robinson’s CPA awarded him some credit points, reducing the workload. He continued full-time work as an investment banking consultant while completing the MBA.
The daily grind:
“Generally, we’d do 9am-3pm Friday starting with an exam, 9am-6pm on Saturday and 9am-3pm Sunday. We’d start the three-day block with an exam, and then continue lectures. Work in between blocks included assignments, reading and research.”
“I considered doing a full-time MBA, but I wanted to apply what I was learning with clients. The Executive MBA gave me that flexibility. I wanted to keep the momentum going with my career and, from a viability perspective, it’s always good to have the funds still coming in while you study.”
“My elective subjects were focused around strategic planning and development, sales management, business sustainability and competitive advantage. These are critical to the success of any new business. Some of the foundation subjects, though, were a real catalyst for the success of my firm – business plans, entrepreneurship, negotiation strategies and, in particular, creative problem solving. It really challenged me to think outside the box, to think laterally, instead of the blinkered approach I may have adopted through the accounting background.”
The new venture:
Completing his studies, Robinson established Tuscon Consulting, offering business consulting services and incorporating iexchange, a partnership with QUT and The University of Queensland (UQ) offering post-graduate students project-based work in Australian businesses.
“I represented BGSB at Confluence, an international business school competition in Ahmedabad, and I met like-minded and talented individuals from around the world. This was the catalyst for iexchange. I recognised local and international students as an untapped resource, in need of a flexible environment. Some can only work 20 hours a week due to visa restrictions. Locals studying full-time would still only like to work 20-30 hours per week. Given a flexible employment solution, they are more than willing to get out there and add value to clients.”
“I didn’t begin Tuscon until I’d completed my MBA, but I should have done it a year earlier — after finishing half the course and the foundation level subjects. Then, I could have applied the principles from the elective subjects directly to the business. I could have used the business as an example in assignments and case studies, and benefited from everyone’s input.”
Emily Humphreys, The Purely Cotton Co
The back story:
In 2003, as a 22-year-old-social science graduate, Emily Humphreys and her father developed a high-tech start-up, Soma Dynamics, securing a COMET grant and $300,000 in angel capital.
Realising the business required more than social science knowledge, she enrolled in a 12-month Master of Entrepreneurship at the University of Adelaide in 2005. Part-way through, Humphreys won a Business Initiatives from Graduates Scholarship, offering financial support, mentoring and an incubator place at the University’s Thebarton Research Park. At the same time, she transferred to the Master of Science and Technology Commercialisation (MSTC).
“The MSTC is about how to take a very innovative technology and put it into the marketplace. It’s like an MBA, but it’s focused on technology. So, where an MBA might look at a higher level of management and managerial skills, the MSTC is also overlaid with a technology, innovation focus.”
The new venture:
“To get the scholarship, I pitched an idea for organic cotton women’s underwear. I was still working with Soma Dynamics, but I wanted to do something on my own. Culturally, working in a male-dominated industry, I often felt like I was the person doing the job, not the best person for the job. I wanted to do my own thing.”
The organic cotton underwear idea became Humphreys’ main project within the MSTC, evolving into The Purely Cotton Co. Her business plan won The People’s Choice award in the University of Adelaide Entrepreneurs’ Challenge 2006.
“In July this year, I opened my own store, a 100 percent organic cotton concept store. Everything we sell has to tick the boxes: it has to be a beautiful product, it has to be organic and it has to be ethically made. It’s going really well. We’re selling.”
“The courses at the University of Adelaide have a practical focus, so the subjects apply to your business. The lecturers are industry people – they’ve been involved in high-tech start-ups, fast-growth start-ups, they’re VCs. So, we can talk to people with scar tissue.”
“I have an office at my store, but it’s rejuvenating to work in the incubator. There are lots of other people here in start-up mode, so you banter around stories about what everybody’s going through. It’s comforting to come back and say, ‘I’ve got this problem’ and they say, ‘me too’.”
The next step:
“I’ll finish my MSTC in November. The academic component of the business is meant to be taking up to 20 hours a week, but it’s hard to decide where study ends and the business starts. I’m working out a growth strategy, of how to raise capital. At the moment the business is funded on savings. This store is really a proof of concept, so we’ll try to leverage that with some capital to take it into a chain of stores.”
Abhishek Sodhani, second-year full-time MBA student, University of Queensland
The back story:
When Abhishek Sodhani, 25, completed his Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Mumbai in 2004, he had a plan: to do an MBA in Australia. “Australia was in a fast growth phase, so there was more opportunity.”
To achieve this goal, he worked diligently as a marketing manager and qualified as a chartered accountant while fulfilling the three-year professional experience component of the MBA entrance requirements.
Not wasting a moment, Sodhani was accepted into the UQ MBA mid-year intake in July 2006 and made Brisbane his new home. He’s due to graduate in July 2008.
“When I worked in India I dealt with people from the UK and the US and, in an increasingly globalised business world, I knew it would be beneficial for me to work and study in another country. Learning business administration is important for entrepreneurs as well as high-level managers – most people you manage have MBAs or chartered accounting qualifications, so it’s important to speak their language.”
Of all his subjects, Sodhani looks forward to Business Negotiation most. “There are lots of business games and it’s very class-oriented. You don’t have lectures, so you’re always talking among each other, and there’s no exam.”
The outside interests:
“I’m on the iexchange program, working as a financial analyst, 20 hours a week. Justin Robinson, who co-ordinates iexchange, recommended I get involved in the Enterprize business planning competition, explaining that it was great business experience. So, I’m on the CVSDUDE.com team, developing a full business plan and preparing our pitch.”
“I can work full-time in Australia for 18 months after I finish my studies. I’ll work anywhere in Australia, it just depends on the job. I’m focusing on securing permanent residency, then I can work and travel freely between Australia and India. I’d like to start up a business in the travel industry. I can see some gaps in the market.”
Eyes on the prize
Think Australian Idol for entrepreneurs and you’ve got the idea behind Queensland Business Icon, a business competition uncovering Queensland’s best and brightest.
Forty applicants, aged 18-25, from all walks of life stepped up to prove (and improve) their business, creative, strategic and leadership skills in a series of events and challenges in the hope of becoming the Queensland Business Icon 2007.
Over an intense five-day period, the contestants were set ‘real-world’ tasks, including organising and hosting a fundraising event for the Oaktree Foundation, designing a new beverage for brewer Lion Nathan and strategic development of Tourism Queensland’s website. At the completion of each task, the judges selected the best competitors to move to the next round, with the final four being asked to develop and pitch a new drug proven to increase the IQ.
A gala dinner was the setting for the final showdown, with each contestant placed in the role of CEO in front of a particularly anxious group of shareholders. Belinda Young, a 21-year-old communications graduate, pitched like a pro to take out the mantle of Queensland Business Icon 2007.
The 2006 competition winners staged the 2007 event, further enhancing their business skills and ensuring a good time was had by all. West Australian-based budding entrepreneurs participated in a similar event, with Victoria set to follow in 2008. See www.australianbusinessicon.com for more details.
Join the club
Those readers with undergraduate degrees, or even those who attempted one, will have hazy memories of Orientation Week. This is the first week of term when the many student clubs and societies try to boost their numbers (and hence funding), usually by offering free beer.
We’re not sure what goes down during O-Week at business school, but here’s a selection of our favourite clubs and societies. Like the courses themselves, there’s something here for everyone:
FMCG Club: The Australian Graduate School of Management’s (AGSM) Fast Moving Consumer Goods club, to keep up to date on retail and consumer trends, staging seminars, speakers and site visits.
Extreme Sports Club: Entrepreneurs love the feeling of adrenaline pulsing through their veins; this is another way to get it at Melbourne Business School.
ICE Club: Innovation, Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship Club, joint venture between AGSM and University of NSW, aims to promote the choice of entrepreneurship as an ‘exciting, satisfying and lucrative business career’. We like them.
CSR Club: The Corporate Social Responsibility Club is the way to help those in need while fine tuning your business skills.
Net Impact: For a global CSR network, try Net Impact, a ‘community of new leaders who use business to improve the world’.
Various wine clubs: Some operating under the objective of educating students in the ways of the wine industry, others just out for a good time.
Women in charge: Any grad school worth its salt has an association dedicated to promoting women in business, featuring networking events, guest speakers and mentoring opportunities.
Alumni associations: Some benefits of your higher learning only become apparent years after graduation. Alumni networks operate world-wide and you never know when that alumnus angel investor might materialise.