Michael Guerrieri, 35 and a 2005 graduate of the evening/weekend MBA program at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, was a senior management executive in sales. But he longed to be an entrepreneur and build something from the bottom up. He decided B-school would provide him with a network of people who could offer advice and funding -- as well as give him the necessary quantitative skills to launch a startup.
Guerrieri credits B-school with giving him the confidence to take the leap. He's now working on two ventures as president and co-founder of Fresh Life Foods, a private label line that plans to deliver healthy snacks in vending machines, and as CEO of OnPar Technologies, a medical-services business that's trying to automate the prescription-refill process for pharmacies. And he's finding that practical experience offers challenges and rewards he never would have expected. "It's one thing to dream and another to execute it," he says.
Mustering the courage and wherewithal to make a major career change drives many people into B-school. But do you really need an MBA to pursue your passions (see BW Online's B-schools Forum, "Do You Need an MBA to Start a Company?")? Just about all the applicants, students, alumni, and administrators interviewed for this story said the degree wasn't necessary -- but it sure can help.
RISING NUMBERS. Most students pursuing an MBA are looking to make some sort of transition, from the minor (say an upward move within their company) to the dramatic (a full-scale change of industry and position). Administrators at top schools say some 80% to 90% of full-time students are career changers.
And the number of part-time MBA students switching career paths is rising, says Janet Richert, managing director of the Office of Career Management at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in College Park. She estimates that 60% to 70% of part-time MBAs want to either change fields or companies, and the other 30% to 40% want to change careers completely. At the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, about 25% of part-timers walk in as career changers, and that number grows to 60% at the conclusion of the program, says Anita Brick, director of career development at the school.
Regardless of which kind of MBA program you enter, alumni and administrators agree that continuing education affords time for self reflection. That time is even built into some programs. Still, most B-schools expect incoming students to already have some idea of what they would like to be doing after graduation. Career-placement offices usually have incoming students take career-assessment tests designed to either confirm their career choices or refocus them (see "Ready to Start a Business?" for our own interactive quiz).
LANGUAGE LESSONS. Exploration is a major part of most school experiences and is exceptionally important in B-school, where many students are aiming to become well-rounded general managers with a broad knowledge base. Class discussions and projects, and especially summer internships, give students the chance to experience different fields and functions without having to make a major commitment to one in particular. "[The MBA] is itself a platform for understanding who you are and where you're at," says Tim Butler, director of the career development program at Harvard Business School and creator of the well-known Career Leader assessment test.
B-school also teaches students skills in particular subject areas, from accounting to human resources. That's a necessity, whether you're climbing the ladder at a large corporation or starting your own business. "The MBA gives you a language and fundamental understanding that lets you follow your passions without starving to death," says Brick. "If you can't back it up with the fundamentals, you may scrape by, but you will never be successful."
Pamela Pantos is one person who made the leap -- an accomplished singer living in Europe, she's turning in her microphone for a calculator. Pantos is a single mother of 4-year-old twins -- a boy and girl -- and she decided the life of a traveling performer wasn't practical for her family. The MBA is her ticket to work/life balance.
When she graduates from the Franklin W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College in 2006, she will be working in corporate finance for a manufacturing company, a job she says will satisfy her mentally and allow her to pursue her true passion -- her children. Pantos, who had virtually no finance experience before B-school, adds that the MBA skill set is critical to her success. "I had no toolbox," she adds. "With the toolbox, you gain confidence."
FOUR QUALITIES. But knowing how to balance a budget doesn't necessarily help you realize a dream. Many alumni say they also developed soft skills -- from nurturing employees to listening to their gut -- at B-school. Guerrieri says he learned through the examples of alumni and his classmates and professors about how to ask for help, something he wasn't comfortable doing before. He adds that he took time and additional courses to make sure he got the most he could out of the MBA experience.
Not everyone is convinced that school can help you take the leap toward a new life, especially if you're thinking about an entrepreneurial endeavor. The MBA is hardly an automatic guarantee that you'll be happy in your new career. Pursuing your passion requires knowledge, guts, heart, and luck, says Alex Chu, a 2001 graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of MBA Apply, a consulting service in Vancouver, Canada, for B-school applicants. Of those four qualities, he adds, B-school can only provide you with knowledge -- and that's not always the most important factor.
Still, most students who managed to move into a new career, especially entrepreneurs, said they owe their contentment to the MBA. And B-schools practically promise they can give anyone who's willing to put in the effort the opportunities necessary to find true job satisfaction.
"The MBA gives you a solid grounding that allows you to pay the mortgage and chase your passion," says Peter Giulioni, executive director of the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business] MBA Career Resource Center. If you wish upon an MBA -- and pick the right school for you, get accepted to it, study hard, earn good grades, network, and plan well -- your dreams can come true, too.