17 – Pros/Cons of an MBA

17 – Pros/Cons of an MBA


At some point, most young business professionals wonder whether or not they should pursue an MBA. Do you really need an MBA to be successful long-term? How much experience should you have before applying? Is it better to go part-time or full-time? Is the MBA really about learning or is it all about networking?

In today’s podcast, we will talk to business experts and entrepreneurs who will share the reasons they decided to get an MBA degree.


Joseph: The day I decided to go back to business school I also went skydiving.

Mwanza: Going through the MBA program was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was so out of my element.

Stewart: I found it to be an absolute essential piece of taking your research and your business to the next level.

Kristen: Welcome to “Sound Advice” – the brief audio download that brings the best of eClips to you. I’m Kirsten Barker.

At some point, most young business professionals wonder whether or not they should pursue an MBA. Do you really need an MBA to be successful long-term? How much experience should you have before applying? Is it better to go part-time or full-time? Is the MBA really about learning or is it all about networking?

In today’s podcast, we will talk to business experts and entrepreneurs who will share the reasons they decided to get an MBA degree.

We’ll start with a comment from Charles McClure. McClure is chairman, chief executive officer and president of automotive supplier, ArvinMeritor. He shares that his reasons for pursuing his MBA at the University of Michigan were to round out his existing engineering background with some solid business skills.

McClure: As I got out of the Navy and started my career, I did realize that an area that I was somewhat weak in, aside from my grades in engineering in the past, was actually on the business side. And so at the same time, I went back to school at night to get an MBA at the University of Michigan. And why I did that, and I share that a lot with the engineering people is, especially in today’s economy, the need to have that kind of focus on business, and part of my talk today will be a recognition of understanding of business concepts as part of you know, succeeding in business today. I didn’t have that. And I talked to a number of people here today. And you know. When I look at it back then, I certainly had a few electives that I could have had the opportunity to take a business school type programs or courses in marketing and finance. And things like that. But did not because obviously, the Navy took up a lot of that. So I had to go back to school at night to get an MBA to kind of round out what I felt I needed for me career going forward.

Kristen: While McClure was looking to round out his skills, Tiffany Norwood used her MBA to help prepare her for her professional goals. Norwood is the co-founder of technology company Next Generation Broadband and serves as the company’s Executive Vice President of Commercial Operations. Norwood explains that her decision to pursue an MBA at Harvard was to sharpen her management skills so that she would be better prepared to start her own company.

Norwood: One of the reasons why I wanted to go to business school was that I knew at some point I wanted to own my own company and that I wanted to lead it, and so for me it was not so much learning how to have your own company but more learning how to you know, work with the teams and to lead and so that was why I was in particular drawn to going to business school that focused on general management, that had the whole Socratic method, so most of the time you spent talking and talking you know, either with your section and trying to solve things that way and/or with your study group and my study group was so telling when I look back on it because it is an miniature replica of the environment that I work in today and I’d leverage even still you know, some of the habits and tools and tricks that I use to kind of influence and get done what I want to get done within my company today from things I learned working with my study group, which is a much safer, you know, situation to learn the skills and to start to develop those traits. And also you have to do it every single day. So it’s like the indoor training facility for crew. It’s an unnatural environment ’cause usually things are pretty much calm, you know day in and day out and then every so often there’s a peak but the great thing about business school is every single day you’re dealing with these peaks and so you can refine your traits in a relatively short period of time.

Kristen: While McClure and Norwood both used the MBA to develop specific skill sets, Paul Joseph comments that he used his two-years as an MBA student as a period of experimentation to explore different aspects of business. Joseph is currently in a leadership position at technology company, Netegrity. As an undergraduate student, Joseph was the co-founder and manager of a profitable business providing server training and risk management certification services to the hospitality industry. Here, he discusses his philosophy towards his MBA experience at Babson…

Joseph: You know, I started at Cornell teaching people how to mix drinks and right now I am consulting to Fortune 100 manufacturers and microchips and computers. I probably wouldn’t have gotten there without the MBA, but the MBA I looked at from day one as two years of complete safety to do whatever I wanted to, to learn and experiment and try, and one of the things that I think that separates my MBA experience from a lot of my classmates even at Babson was I was taking a lot of classes and trying new things, you know, I started a consulting club with a group, I took a lot of the classes that had external consulting or projects to them, and I found the people and the professors that pushed me, and I think you can get that at any program that is tough when you are filtering through one of the best programs, but I think you can find those gems at any program if you are looking for the right business.

Kristen: Once you decide to get an MBA, many prospective students question whether it makes the most sense to get your degree directly after undergrad or whether it is more valuable to have work experience before applying.

Eric Young is a co-founder and General Partner of investment firm, Canaan Partners. Prior to founding Canaan Partners, Young was a Senior Vice President of GE Venture Capital. Young decided to pursue his MBA in finance at Northwestern directly after completing his undergraduate degree in engineering at Cornell. For him, it made more sense to stay in an academic mode because he might never return to school if he had to walk away from a paycheck…

Young: I decided to go directly on from undergraduate school to business school for one very specific reason. And I knew at the time that this was almost 30 years ago. And the trend at the time was to go out and work for a couple of years before going back. There were still some people who were going directly, but it was the distinct minority. And so I knew I was doing something somewhat counter-cultural. Perhaps a little risky. I might not optimize my experience necessarily. But when I graduated as an engineer from Cornell, I had a number of job offers. And they were all very lucrative, at least financially. And many of them interesting. And many of my counterparts in arts and sciences and other parts of Cornell were not seeing much in the way of job offers. And at that point in time I didn’t have a lot of money. And I was really afraid that if I went out and took a full time job and got comfortable and started paying back those student loans, that I wouldn’t leave it to go back to school full time.

Kristen: Michael Holland is currently a Director at Oberon Media, one of the world’s leading casual games solution provider. Holland had been involved in several technology startup ventures before pursuing his MBA through the Executive MBA program at the Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. He shares that his MBA experience would have not had the same value without prior experience in business…

Holland: One thing that I would highly encourage you to not do is go get your MBA right out of your undergraduate. I think that that is a horrible misuse of your effort and your money. I think that after four or five years of working in real world whether a small business or entrepreneurship or corporate environments, I think that you have got a better idea of the questions that you want answered. That is what I am finding from the MBA program is that, you know, myself I had a lot of open questions about how in the world did this whole dot com boom thing happen and where did we really screw up other than the obvious places, and that was what I wanted to learn from the MBA program and so far I have been getting that out of it.

Kristen: Brian Magierski is an experienced entrepreneur and start-up executive in the area of software and web services. Currently Brian is the Co-Founder, President & CEO of Kalivo, Inc., a leading provider of web software that enables companies to engage directly with their customers via the Web. He agrees with Holland and actually states that his opinion changed from initially thinking experience didn’t matter to realizing that even having only two years of experience may not be enough to get the most out of an MBA program…

Magierski: I think it makes a very big difference in the quality of the experience you have in the MBA program to get work experience before going into the MBA program and I did not feel this way when I was an undergrad. I felt I had the right to go get my MBA right away and I looked at doing it at Cornell. I didn’t even think about Harvard because they were explicit about getting at least two years of work experience before they would admit you. So, I didn’t get into Cornell’s MBA program and it was a very good blessing because having gone even to Harvard with two years of experience, I felt like I probably should have had four or five and in an MBA program you end up surrounded by a lot of people with diverse set of work experiences that they all share with each other and part of the education is the students talking about their various set of experiences in the context of a business case or a business problem and you want to feel like you’re contributing to that conversation and you also are less able to process at the next level. You’re processing at the fundamental level of dotting the eyes and crossing the t’s. You are looking at the fundamentals of what is a balance sheet and what is an income statement and what does this all mean in the context of understanding a business as opposed to processing at the next level of, Hey, there are these issues in the balance sheet, these issues in the income statement, and these are some of the strategies we need to think about in terms of debt financing or what not. Those are the levels of discussions that start happening in terms of the cases and if you’re not up to that level you find yourself not getting a full breath of experience that you could from a collaborative discussion in class in an MBA program. So, I did it with two years of experience. I think in hindsight, I probably would have absorbed more with maybe four years of experience.

Kristen: What about the decision whether to go full-time or part-time? Some argue that you get the most out of a program if you can be completely engrossed as a full-time student while others state that the degree means more if you attend part-time and apply the lessons to a full-time job.

Maren Kasper is an Account Business Manager at Colgate-Palmolive Co. Let’s listen as she discusses her decision to pursue an MBA part-time at New York University while continuing her full-time job

Kasper: I’m currently a part-time MBA student at NYU, I’m part of their Langone Program which is a… it’s one of the great part-time programs in the country, in that they put a lot of resources behind it. I had a big personal debate of whether or not to go full time or part-time and in doing that I’ve decided that I’m in an industry I love, I’m in consumer products, and I’m with a company that I really enjoyed, that’s based out in New York, that has great long term potential for me. So, I decided that … I knew I wanted my MBA, I knew I wanted it all along. So as soon as I had the experience under my belt and felt I was qualified to you know, go in with a group of peers that I could contribute and learn from, I did apply to it and I’m going part-time and I didn’t want to leave Colgate and I didn’t want to pull out of that and it’s been great. I love it.

Kristen: Bill Weidlein is Vice Chairman of Trans National Group, a direct response marketing and investment company. He feels that full-time is the only way to go through an MBA program and here, he shares his decision to change from being a part-time student to a full-time student while he and his wife were pursuing their MBAs at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Weidlein: So we both started taking MBA courses at night together at Wharton and it took one semester exactly for us to both realize that this wasn’t the way to get an MBA education, that we really wanted to do … and it wasn’t because we weren’t getting the course content. It was hard to work and go to school at the same time but the course content was very much what an MBA would experience. We would get exposed in the evenings to what the real MBA students were doing and it just looked like a lot of fun and it looked a great environment to learn and to develop socially and so we both left our employers and applied to Wharton on a full time basis.

Kristen: Finally, what about the MBA program itself? Is the MBA about the pounding the books or really about the networking experiences? Listening to our experts, it seems to be a good amount of both.

Angela Mwanza is Vice President at Lehman Brothers Private Investment Management. Listen as she shares her experiences as an MBA student at Cornell University’s Johnson School

Mwanza: First and foremost, going through the MBA program was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I was so out of my element. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I didn’t expect it to be that hard. I had no finance background and I had really not been exposed to most of the things that most other people had been exposed to because I’d been in Germany which is a very different culture around the markets and you know, when I’m dealing with international clients now, I realize that they’re not as exposed as some of the undergrads are here and they’ve been in business many years. So it was first of all getting… coming to terms with being in America, being in a different culture, dealing with teams where communication between each other was just a … it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be not to mention the classes, you know, McHaley’s finance, you know, tackling the Wall Street Journal, learning how to read a finance paper, there were so many different ways I was learning but I got so much out of it, just learning the fundamentals. There was … obviously there was a gap in my background, I didn’t have the quantitative skills. I think probably if I were in admissions, I would have looked at my resume and wondered whether or not I would have been able to cope and it really took a lot of hard work and a lot of focus and a lot of help from fellow students and my teams at the time to get me through it and I couldn’t say I did. The learnings to this day when I think of valuation classes, I wish I’d done a lot more in accounting, I could have used so much more in accounting. I did Nelson’s intermediate accounting and at the time I didn’t really get it. When I go over my notes and I still do to this day, with all the anecdotes of why a company blew up or why certain company was bought for a certain amount, I’m beginning to understand it. So I think it really gave me the fundamentals of you know, how to read a newspaper, how to look at what’s happening in the world and apply it to the markets and apply that to my client portfolios.

Kristen: Chris Wilkerson is the President of EquipSystems which focuses on equipment management programs for hospitals. Wilkerson agrees to the importance of diving deeper into the educational aspects of the MBA but also stresses that the networking he did during his MBA at Wharton was of even greater importance.

Wilkerson: My reasons for going back to graduate school were very different than most of my class mates. I viewed it as yet, and I did an undergraduate business program at Cornell, so I had a foundation. I had what I then realized once I got back to school, an incredible four years of working. And I went back and I said yes. There is an educational component to this. And I valued that immensely. And it took – it was a repeat of some of what I had seen at Cornell. Diving much further – I want to say casting the net further and diving deeper in many subjects that I had not touched on here. But there was this social element in the network that was the probably the most valuable thing. And that has been proven – every year that I have been out of graduate school has proven to be the most valuable thing I got out of going to school. And when I did my interviews and my essays of why do I want to go to graduate school, I talked about the education. I talked about the social. And I talked about the networking. And I would probably now rank them as networking most important. Social and education. In that order.

Kristen: We’ll close with a comment from Lance Stewart. Stewart is the Vice President of the BioStructures Group at deCODE genetics, Inc. where he manages deCODE’s protein crystallography services and products businesses. With a PhD in Biochemistry, an MBA degree was really never something that had been on Stewart’s radar screen. Listen as he shares his surprise at the MBA degree’s usefulness…

Stewart: My senior management at Medican suggested that either myself or my co-founder do an MBA and so I applied to this executive program at the University of Washington and they agreed to fund it which was really great. So, I got into that and I did that and I, going into it, I really didn’t know what’s the use of this. You know I was still pretty much doing science and…but I found it to be an absolute essential piece of taking your research and your business to the next level.

Kristen: Thanks for listening to this segment. If you are interested in hearing more from any of our featured speakers, or would like to hear more advice from our experts on the pros and cons of pursuing an MBA, please check our website at eclips.cornell.edu.

That’s E-C-L-I-P-S. cornell.edu.

And remember, if it is a business topic of interest, eClips will bring you “Sound Advice”…

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