Most business schools would love for you to believe that an M.B.A. is the ticket to huge paychecks and unlimited career growth. However, a large number of businesspeople have achieved success without a business school's stamp of approval. In fact, BusinessWeek reports that fewer than one of three executives who reach upper- echelon positions hold an M.B.A. Before the decision is made to choose the right college and to spend significant money and effort on earning an M.B.A., consider what these successful and intelligent players in the business world have to say about getting a business degree.
Warren Buffett's investments have earned him over $52 billion dollars and made him the third richest man in the world. Buffett built his wealth without an M.B.A. and believes that "business schools reward difficult, complex behavior more than simple behavior, but simple behavior is more effective."
Guy Kawasaki was one of the original players that got Apple on its feet with the Macintosh. He now works as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley as CEO of Garage Technology Ventures. Kawasaki holds an M.B.A. from the University of California but doesn't believe it's been the source of his and others' success in the tech industry. Kawasaki remarked, "I don't think an M.B.A. matters very much for starting a company. A much better educational background is an engineering degree. You can always hire MBAs, but if you don't have the ability to conceptualize and deliver a product, you've got nothing."
Larry Ellison is co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corp., a major database software company. Despite attending multiple colleges, Ellison never graduated but boasts a net worth of more than $18 billion. Ellison once remarked to recent grads of a top management school, "Now that you have an M.B.A., you will never be as successful as me!"
Henry Mintzberg is an internationally renowned academic who has spent the majority of his professional career writing about business and management strategy, boasting 13 books and more than 140 articles to his name. Though he received an M.B.A. and a Ph. D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, Mintzberg is extremely critical of the current M.B.A. programs at schools like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He commented, "The M.B.A. trains the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences. Using the classroom to help develop people already practicing management is a fine idea, but pretending to create managers out of people who have never managed is a sham."
Ross Perot, former presidential candidate and billionaire, never attended college. Perot's company, Electronic Data Systems, was sold for $2.4 billion to GM in 1984, a move that helped Perot establish his current net worth of $4.3 billion. That's not too bad for a Texan with no formal business degree. Perot, like many others, feels that real-life experience can be superior to textbook learning. Perot reflected, "When I go to the Harvard Business School, I talk to them about the real world. At business schools they live and think in terms of organizational charts. But life is a spiderweb; everything crosses at odd angles."
Christine Comaford has held positions ranging from Buddhist monk to geisha trainee. Although she never completed high school or college, Christine has become an entrepreneur, CEO and multimillionaire. She has put in time as an operational high-tech officer at Microsoft, Lotus, Adobe and Apple and has worked as a strategy advisor to Oracle and Symantec Corp. All of this makes it easy to believe her when she said, "When it comes to success in business, an M.B.A. degree is optional."
Jim McCann, president and CEO of 1-800-Flowers, was one of the first retailers to use the Internet to sell goods and services directly to consumers. Although he did this without an M.B.A., McCann had real-world knowledge and experience from operating several small flower shops in New York City. When asked if he thought a degree helps entrepreneurs be more successful, he replied, "Do you need a degree? Not necessarily. The smarter we get, the more things we know we can't do. I probably wouldn't have had such good fortune with 1-800-Flowers if I were smarter. I would have thought too much about why the deal couldn't be done."
Bill Gates, is a man who requires very little introduction. This CEO and co-founder of Microsoft is the richest man in the world with a net worth of nearly $56 billion. His success wasn't the result of a college education; Gates dropped out of Harvard after just two years to pursue work on the technology that would later launch Microsoft. While Gates has not specifically maligned M.B.A. programs, his feelings on college in general no doubt extend to business school. Gates feels school does little to prepare students for the real world, explaining, "Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off, and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself."
Leonard Lauder, Chairman and CEO of Estee Lauder, puts experience above education when hiring new employees. Lauder explained, "Most of the people who work here started out at lowly jobs — behind the counter selling our products or working in the office as secretaries or assistants. These people are running the business now. They know what the customer wants."
Grace Murray Hopper greatly impacted the way we use computers today. Hopper was one of the first programmers on the Harvard Mark I calculator and also developed the first compiler for a computer programming language. Hopper has been quoted as saying, "You manage things, you lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership. It might help if we ran the MBAs out of Washington."
Kris Chellam is CFO of California semiconductor company Xilinx and a former financial manager at Intel. Chellam is another executive who believes that an M.B.A. doesn't prepare you for the business world as well as working. He advised, "One learns more from experience and peers than any M.B.A. program."
Mark Astone is the CEO of Panagraph, a Fresno, Calif.-based strategic marketing and communications firm. Under his leadership, Panagraph has achieved substantial growth and has won numerous awards including Bee's "Business in Excellence Award." Astone has an M.B.A. but believes that M.B.A.s aren't necessarily a ticket to success. He says that even those with M.B.A.s from prestigious Stanford University "get real delusional" about their capabilities. He also feels that time invested in school might be better spent elsewhere: "If you put the same effort into a job, career and getting experience, you'll be better off.
Carl Hiassen is a well-known author and former investigative journalist. He has published more than 20 books, 2 of which have been developed into major motion pictures. Known for his stance on environmental issues and conservation in his native Florida, Hiassen feels that business schools often corrupt the idealism and ethics of entrepreneurs, remarking that "they have a crystalline sense of right and wrong; it disappears when they walk out the door with their M.B.A.."
William Gordon is co-founder and CCO of Electronic Arts as well as a member of Amazon.com's board of directors. Gordon thinks that an M.B.A. is something that should be considered on an individual basis: "It's a very hefty investment of money and opportunity for anyone who already loves their job."
Marc Cenedella is founder of theladders.com, a Web site dedicated to helping job seekers find jobs in the salary range of $100,000 and up. Since it is his job to match qualified candidates with high-paying positions, he knows a thing or two about factors that help you get ahead. Cenedella believes that M.B.A.s can be helpful, but warns, "no degree can guarantee success in the arena. It's important for executives to focus on how an M.B.A. enables job success, not just cocktail-party bragging rights. A diploma on the office wall doesn't mean you'll reach the penthouse."
Jon Huntsman, Sr. is the founder of multibillion-dollar Hunstman Corporation and a member of the Forbes 400. Hunstman went to Wharton for his M.B.A., but admits it may not have been the best choice. He reflects, "I went to night school to get an MBA. I should have utilized that time to set up more businesses. True entrepreneurs get out of school as fast as they can and get on with life."
Ian Bruce Eichner is a Manhattan real-estate mogul and chairman of Continuum Co. Eichner is known for his aggressive business practices and penchant for risk-taking. When asked about how he finds competent employees, Eichner answered, "We've never asked anyone [if he has] an M.B.A.. It's more important to find out if someone has a work ethic than to find out how educated they are. If they don't know how to work, then they are just educated fools."
Arthur Taylor, former president of CBS and founder of the A&E Channel, thinks that an M.B.A. can potentially hurt entrepreneurs. Talyor believes that "innovation is not going to come from people who sit in the classroom and undergo an organized thought process. An MBA stunts creativity."
Ann Winblad, a venture capitalist for Hummer Winblad Venture Partners in San Francisco, is experienced in knowing what makes entrepreneurs successful. In fact, she has gambled millions on her ability to identify those who will be successful and those who won't. Winblad believes that degrees don't make much of a difference in the long-term success of a business, because "an entrepreneur is a kind of genius who is born, not made."
Paul Fleming is the founder of P.F. Chang's China Bistro, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based restaurant chain that brought in $675 million in sales last year. He doesn't feel his success has been the result of things learned at school: "The steps you have to take, the risks you have to take — I don't think in a million years you can teach it in a classroom."
While having that M.B.A. might give you a boost, the reality is that the degree generally isn't a guarantee or indicator of your future success. Business success has more to do with leadership, talent and a drive for excellence than it does with having a degree from a prestigious university. An M.B.A. can help you get your foot in the door, but according to Peter D. Crist, chairman of Crist Associates executive search firm, "it's instinct, it's hard work, and it's raw intelligence" that will really help you get ahead.
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