MBA connection plants seeds for Saltworks foundersNov 30, 2012
The following article was published by the Financial Post on November 27, 2012.
BY DENISE DEVEAU, FINANCIAL POST
MBA programs build entrepreneurs’ bonds
Since graduating from the Richard Ivey School of Business’s Certificate in Entrepreneurship program in 2006, Bill Hennessey has opened a number of ventures, including an online lobster company, a cleaning products packaging operation and an experiential marketing firm. In fact, he’s a true dyed-in-the-wool entrepreneur having run his first “business” at the age of seven.
The Charlottetown native believes that his Ivey contacts are what keep him on the path to success since venturing off the island. “Everything stemmed from there. In fact one of the biggest customers for my lobster company was an Ivey grad who had heard about me through the alumni program.”
For many people with entrepreneurial aspirations, building networks for success often starts with the company you keep in an MBA program. Whether entrepreneurship is in your DNA; a joint project triggers a serendipitous meeting of potential business partners; or an international junket sparks an entrepreneurial dream, MBA programs are changing their ways to offer a hotbed of networking opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Whatever the motive, the number of entrepreneurs in the MBA circuit is growing — so much so programs are dedicating extensive time, effort and resources into supporting entrepreneurship, says Stewart Thornhill, executive director, Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship at Ivey.
“I would say that up to one-half of applicants to our MBA program list entrepreneurship as a core area of interest. Fifteen years ago that was unheard of.
“Now it’s a top ambition versus something a graduate accidentally falls into.”
Mr. Thornhill doesn’t credit the efforts of the schools so much as the fact that entrepreneurship has become “cool” in the minds of business hopefuls. “They’re the rock stars these days. Some of the biggest shows on television like Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank are about entrepreneurs.”
One of the critical things that an MBA program can offer entrepreneurial types is a vast and supportive alumni network, he adds. “About one in six of our alumni is in an owner/leader president type position and either started their own companies or moved into the role. Having access to those business connections and leads is a great place for students to get a start.”
More formalized alumni efforts include an Annual Venture Forum Event where entrepreneurs, investors and professionals connect to present pitches. Ivey is also working on referral programs with accelerator groups such as MaRS Commons in Toronto to help potential entrepreneurs get placed into important industry ecosystems. It has also established a network 60 “virtual” entrepreneurs-in-residence who serve as mentors.
Sometimes however it’s the in-class connections that plant the seeds for an entrepreneurial venture. Ben Sparrow and Joshua Zoshi first connected during their studies at the Management of Technology MBA program at Simon Fraser University (SFU) Beedie School of Business. Eventually they reconnected to found Saltworks, a rapidly growing desalination company in Vancouver.
According to Mr. Zoshi who is co-founder and president, (Mr. Sparrow serves as the CEO), they were both well entrenched in their respective fields of software consulting and mechanical engineering when they came to the program. “We both thought an MBA would be useful to helping us transition to other industries.”
It was three years after the fact that the two reconnected to take Mr. Sparrow’s desalination prototype and start their own business. Since the business partnership took hold, Mr. Zoshi says he continues to appreciate the value of the SFU Alumni Association. “We’ve noticed there were a few emerging water technology and cleantech companies. The Association does a great job of keeping everyone in touch.”
For Lisa Hryniw, owner and founder of Sendioso, an online gift certificate service in Edmonton, working with entrepreneurs during her MBA studies at the University of Alberta School of Business has given her the push she needed to venture on her own.
She claims that her MBA studies represented a turning point for her. “Being in the program helped tremendously in pursuing a budding penchant for entrepreneurship,” she says. “It wasn’t just the education; it was the networking. The encouragement from classmates was fantastic.”
What really pushed her was a study tour that took a small group to Imperial College in London to study family business, innovation and entrepreneurship. “The stuff I learned and the people I talked to and the networking I did took me to the point where I could fully commit to this,” she says. “I’m not sure I would have gotten here without that experience.”
Ms. Hryniw also enjoys the fact that a good number of alumni do speaking engagements for the program. “They’re really supportive and making those connections is so helpful, because they can serve as a referral to others you’re not directly connected to.”
Whatever form the path to entrepreneurship takes, the networking opportunities provided in MBA programs deliver lifelong value. “A lot us keep in touch to catch up and help each other when we have challenges,” Mr. Hennessey says. “That’s what has given me the confidence and helped to point in the right direction.”
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