This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.
Business schools have new competition for students with startups on the brain.
A number of programs, from General Assembly in New York to Starter School in Chicago, have cropped up recently to cater to people seeking to launch their own companies or join fledgling ones.
Offerings are à la carte and the mission is stripped down. The idea, founders say, is to give students just enough instruction in everything from coding to marketing and operations to get an idea off the ground.
Increasingly, these programs are attracting college graduates who might otherwise attend business school to master the art of creating businesses or polishing investor pitches. Although these schools make up a sliver of the business-education market, for certain students they may be emerging as a faster, cheaper rival to the two-year M.B.A.
Take, for example, the 18 students who filed into a class on business basics late last month at the two-year-old General Assembly. Mostly 20-something working professionals, they’re skipping the M.B.A., at least for now, and spending 10 weeks and $3,900 to learn financial modeling, problem-solving techniques and market analysis.
Business schools say these programs are on their radar, and some have even borrowed from their curricula. But administrators say the programs complement, rather than rival, their offerings.
There is some overlap in course content, says Ankur Kumar, M.B.A. admissions director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, but startup training programs still “generally attract a different audience.”
Chance Griffin, 25 years old, will leave his job as an operations manager at Proficient Learning LLC in Wilmington, N.C., later this month for Chicago, enrolling in the inaugural nine-month program at Starter School, which aims to give students the coding, design and business skills needed to launch a Web app.
He considered business school, but never applied. “I’ve thought about the whole M.B.A. thing. [But] it’s been really hard to convince myself of the value of doing that,” Mr. Griffin says.
At $33,000 for nine months, Starter School is steep, but Mr. Griffin says it’s still cheaper than a two-year M.B.A., which can top six figures. Plus, he says, the technical skills, taught by local developers and entrepreneurs, will carry him farther than a business degree will.
“There’s a lot of extra space in those two years [of an M.B.A.],” says General Assembly co-founder and Chief Executive Jake Schwartz, a Wharton graduate.
He and the founders of similar programs—which aren’t accredited—say they aren’t yet sure how they fit in with traditional business schools, but they’re finding a willing audience. More than 65,000 students have taken General Assembly’s classes and workshops since 2011, and 90 have graduated from its monthslong intensive design and Web development courses, which cost upward of $7,500.
The year-old Startup Institute, which runs eight-week programs in Web development, marketing and other subjects, expanded earlier this year from its Boston base to New York and Chicago, and similar organizations are opening in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere around the country.
About 300 students have cycled through Startup Institute’s course, in which students spend three days a week on a track, such as design and business development, with the other two days working on team projects. For example, students recently helped advise Twitter Inc.’s Bluefin Labs, which analyzes tweets about TV shows, on storing and sharing customer data.
More traditional schools, including Columbia Business School and Babson College, have beefed up entrepreneurship education in the past few years as students aspire to careers in startups.
Wharton has recently welcomed General Assembly to speak to students about sessions focused on startups, and highlights successful alumni entrepreneurs in admissions activities. Ms. Kumar says she reminds prospective students that the Wharton name goes a long way with potential investors.
Samir Malik, 27, had just launched virtual doctor’s office 1DocWay a few months before starting classes at Wharton in fall 2011.
“I definitely had conflicting thoughts” about starting school while the business took off, he says, but was impressed with professors and classmates, who provided fine-tuned feedback on topics such as scaling up and acquiring new customers.
One year in, though, he took a leave of absence from the program and has since focused full-time on his venture, which now boasts 14 hospital and clinic partners and recently treated its 4,000th patient.
A business-school pedigree matters little in startup circles, some say. Noam Wasserman,an entrepreneurship professor at Harvard Business School, says that “the name of the place you went, or that you even went to a place, is just about irrelevant.”
While an M.B.A. isn’t mandatory for starting a company, it does help when running one, says Janet Strimaitis, executive director of the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship at Babson, noting the need to identify business opportunities, build teams and create a company culture.
Pupils at Starter School and similar programs ostensibly want to launch their own companies, but recruiters are taking note.
Jules Pieri is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at her alma mater, Harvard Business School. But when hiring for the Grommet, the online gift store she founded in 2008, Ms. Pieri says her “go-to place” for candidates is Startup Institute; more than a half dozen of her 47 employees came from the program.
Startup Institute says 94% of job-seeking graduates get hired, many at popular companies such as Bluefin Labs and online-course provider EdX.
Even McKinsey & Co., the veteran recruiter of high-achieving M.B.A. graduates, has hired at least one General Assembly student after the consulting firm helped develop and teach the school’s 10-week business fundamentals course.
The new hire, Nicole Meyers, starts this month as a McKinsey analyst. The 24-year-old says she enrolled in the General Assembly course to improve her problem-solving and presentation skills, holding her over until pursuing an M.B.A. in a few years.
But now, she says, it “might have eliminated the need to go to business school altogether.”
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