Cover photo for Emma Lawler

Why I need an MBA to be a startup founder

Emma Lawler
People with MBAs have a bad reputation in the world of tech startups. Elon Musk devalues the skillset (“they don’t know how things work”).  Peter Thiel famously pays young people to drop out of school to start companies and doesn’t like to hire MBAs (“extremely herd-like thinking and behavior”).

The world’s most successful tech founders never even finished their college degrees. Just to list a few: Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook, James Park: Fitbit, John and Patrick Collison: Stripe, Jack Dorsey: Square and Twitter, Steve Jobs: Apple.

An MBA is not a requirement for any career, and it’s even frowned upon if you’re aspiring to be a tech entrepreneur. I knew this, and I still applied to business school with the sole focus of being a startup founder after graduation.

What patterns do you see in that list of entrepreneurs who dropped out of school to find huge success in tech? They’re all men, and most still had the pedigree of being accepted to a school like Harvard or Stanford.

When I started researching women who made it to a similar level of success, the pattern was slightly different. Most finished college (yes, there’s still a strong Harvard contingent), and many have Master’s degrees or MBAs. Sheryl Sandberg: Facebook and LeanIn, Jennifer Hyman: Rent the Runway, Katrina Lake: Stitch Fix, Anne Wojcicki: 23andMe, Michelle Zatlyn: Cloudflare.

It’s also just harder to find examples of successful woman entrepreneurs since only 2% of Venture Capital funding goes towards female founders

After my co-founder and I sold Moonlight in 2020, I decided business school was next.  I spent the next year working as a technical product manager, taking online business classes, learning GRE/GMAT math, and hustling to get enough scholarships to offset the risk of my entrepreneurial plans.

Chicago Booth offered me a spot in their full-time class of ‘23 along with the Herman Family Fellowship for Women Entrepreneurs. I gratefully accepted. Their flexible curriculum is more amenable to entrepreneurs than other schools, and includes the opportunity to compete in the New Venture Challenge with investment of up to $1M for winning startups. Companies like Simple Mills, GrubHub, and Braintree had come out of the program.

One quarter in, I’ve learned invaluable lessons I wouldn’t have prioritized on my own time. I used learnings from entrepreneurial discovery, microeconomics (this required teaching myself calculus 😭), and statistics classes to validate or disprove each of my startup ideas. I learned the math of insurance prices, how it serves as income distribution in some ways. I understand more about credit card fees, the cost of calculated consumer risk. I got access to Nobel Prize-winning economists, world-renowned entrepreneurs, and meaningful experience as a VC investor while interning at Chicago Ventures. 

More than anything, I’m gaining access to a prestigious world I’ve never had access to in the past. I’m spending my time with world-class investors, executives, academics, lawyers, consultants, bankers, and aspiring politicians. I can feel the doors of access and privilege opening up around me.
It would have been easier to stay in my comfortable bubble. I could have kept my job, skipped the rigorous MBA vetting process, then coded and launched a lean business in my free time. But I believe the humility of resetting as a student, the time away to truly learn, and the access unlocked by a top business school will lead to a more impactful long-term outcome for me as a founder.

I intend to increase the 2% of Venture Capital funding that goes towards female founders as an entrepreneur myself, and eventually as an investor. I expect to report back that this MBA was one of the things that increased my chances.