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Why Entrepreneurs Succeed With a Business Degree

Posted February 13, 2020 by Matthew Waller - Dean and Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair - The University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business

It’s not that an entrepreneur must have a college degree to succeed. Business icons like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Richard Branson are high-profile examples—albeit rare examples—that prove otherwise. But the reality is that entrepreneurs stand a much better chance of early and sustained success when they build their organizations on the foundation of a quality business degree.

There’s a proven positive economic return on earning a business degree, not to mention a positive correlation when it comes to things like health and quality of life. And whether they are starting a business or leading innovation in an existing company, entrepreneurs benefit in at least nine critical areas when they invest in a business degree: finances, business planning, business execution, legal issues, technology, human resources, networking, sales, and marketing, and leadership.

In each of those areas, students benefit from classroom experiences led by teachers and professors who have both theoretical and practical understandings of the concepts that entrepreneurs face, as well as from guest speakers from the business world.

Furthermore, today’s students get hands-on experiences in entrepreneurial situations—not just through internships, but with class projects, clubs, and interdisciplinary programs. For instance, at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where I serve as dean, we have one of the oldest student-managed investment funds in the U.S., a student-run company that’s been around since 1996, and entrepreneurial programs that connect business students with social innovation projects or with projects in the arts.

The interdisciplinary aspect of learning entrepreneurial skills in college cannot be overstated. After all, entrepreneurs need to be able to work with individuals with all types of backgrounds and to approach problems from different perspectives. Recently we implemented a new venture development program that connects business students with students from disciplines like science, technology, engineering, and math. The program has already produced 23 high-growth startup businesses and raised more than 60 million USD in grants and equity.

Some things about entrepreneurship, of course, are personality driven and therefore not easily taught in a formal setting. The idea of starting a business from scratch or blazing a trail from within a company that’s already up and running is invigorating to some and intimidating to others. But quality business colleges teach students critical skills like how to identify risk factors, how to mitigate the challenges of those risks, and how to manage and lead a team when the risks are high. They also provide coaching and mentoring on those topics, and those relationships last a lifetime.

The idea that entrepreneurs should surround themselves with experts in specific areas is solid advice, but it’s not a substitute for developing basic business acumen as a leader. A foundational business education allows entrepreneurs to choose those experts wisely, add value when collaborating with them, hold them accountable, and work through challenges more quickly and from a position of knowledge rather than paying the high price of mistakes born of ignorance.

Every entrepreneur makes mistakes, but entrepreneurs with a business degree are armed with fundamental business principles that help them make fewer costly mistakes, learn from their mistakes quickly, and pivot effectively toward sustained success. By learning in a college setting on the front end, they benefit even more from the experiences they have when they move forward in life.

Matthew Waller, dean and the Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair, Walton College of BusinessMatthew Waller is the dean and Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business in Fayetteville.