Saturday, June 29, 2013

Is Business School the Right Place for an Entrepreneur?

The panelists at today's session on entrepreneurship say yes. Laura R. Walker, President and CEO of New York Public Radio led a discussion with four visionary young founders and business leaders: Elena Bajic, founder and CEO of Ivy Exec; Alexa von Tobel, Founder and CEO,, and Danae Ringelmann, Co-founder, Indiegogo.

Ringelmann found her co-founders at business school. In fact, she pursued an MBA to exploit every resource she could get her hands on to help start her business. Bajic too found that access to professors, students, and alumnae provided fertile soil for nurturing her fledgling business idea. Von Tobel left Harvard Business School after one year, with her 75-page business plan in hand, so eager was she to start up

The passion each of these women have for what they do energized the room. "The most important thing you can do is think about the products that you want that are missing from your life, where you're customer number 1 and you're passionate about what you're doing," says von Tobel. "I'm passionate about financial planning. It really shouldn't be a luxury. I read customer feedback every night." Ringelmann said the same: early on, she worked raising money for theater and film. Frustrated by the inherent difficulty of raising money for the arts, she realized that she wanted to revolutionize the way people with good ideas get access to funds. Driven by her idealism about "democratizing finance," she enrolled in business school, and started gearing up for what eventually became Indiegogo. "I spent the next two years in business school milking it for everything it offered - every class I took was about Indiegogo. We used incubator space. We launched my second year of business school."

To be sure, it wasn't easy:  "I was one of those people in college who was obsessed with getting an A," says Ringelmann. "But when you start a business, it's not like that - there are no pats on the back, sometimes for years. I went to business school knowing that I was spending lots of money. I didn't care if I looked stupid. I asked any question I needed to ask."

All three founders are "past startup mode" as Walker put it. But they recall very vividly the lessons of that fairly recent startup phase. "You're making a lot of decisions, fast, every day," said Alexa. "In the first year-and-a-half, I couldn't tell you exactly what was going to happen in the next year. Now that we're in a different phase, I can tell you exactly what's going to happen over the next three years."

Surprisingly, all three gave the sense that raising investment funds wasn't the most challenging part of founding a business. In fact, Ringelmann recalled that, by the time the money started flowing in from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, she and her co-founders had just one slide: "All it showed was the numbers, going up and to the right - that was all we needed." But a lot of muscle went into building things to that point: focusing on brand, partnerships, and customer experience. Bajic shared a similar story: "It took us awhile to raise funds," she recalled. "We finally got an angel, but by that time, the business had already grown that year 300% and we were profitable. We took in the funding and it helped fuel the growth and stabilize. Since then we've grown 1300%." And she, like the others, admits: "The first years are tough. You're really boot-strapping the business. You're doing everything yourself." But as von Tobel put it "It's the best ride ever!"

We'll cover the discussion with these inspiring entrepreneurs in more detail in our upcoming newsletter. Meanwhile, thanks to ALL of our phenomenal speakers at the 2013 MBA Women's Conference, and to our engaged and engaging audience of talented MBA women! Share your favorite memories of the 2013 MBA Women's Conference at #ForteMBA.

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