Shaking Up the MBA | Dirty Fingernails Entrepreneurship

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether the MBA curriculum has led business leaders astray. To the point that this year’s crop of Harvard Grads decided they needed to take an oath to look beyond stock price and financials in making business decisions. Hmmm.

This got me thinking about my own grad-school days. My favorite prof taught entrepreneurship at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Of all my classes at IU, this one clearly informed me of how little I would know when I escaped academia for the workforce.

He was less a professor and more a serial entrepreneur who chose to teach business students a bit about the ‘real world.’ If memory served, he favored what I call ‘dirty fingernails’ entrepreneurship, where it isn’t as much about managing at first, as it is about creating value that didn’t exist or is in short supply – finding the niche that was difficult to enter but profitable to serve. A story about kettle drums sticks in my mind. (And of course his name escapes me, master networker that I am.)

Aside: The photo above is all about ‘dirty fingernails’ entrepreneurship. My dad also taught me a lot about business that textbooks have yet to cover.  His first business was started while in the Pacific during WWII where he built this darkroom from castoff odds and ends to develop photos he would take of friends wanting to send back mementos. He also sold packets of his photos when back in the states. Supplies, time, permission all were constant challenges to be worked through.

As business schools are re-thinking their curriculum I was wondering if a more radical approach might be called for when it comes to entrepreneurship.

Of course Seth Godin decided to take a real whack at the value of an MBA by offering his alternative MBA – 6 months including one hour a day of class/dialog, four hours a day of working on his projects, three hours a day working on a personal project, and five hours a day living, noticing, doing and connecting. For an entrepreneur I can see a lot more potential value in the contacts and advice from that program for some folks than from 2 years of academic advice in the college environment.

Of course, there are a limited amount of people and companies that can offer a program like Godin, and I have not yet heard how it worked out. But it’s a great experiment and it raises the question. What could Universities do to up the ante on their entrepreneurship efforts? There are plenty of contests with relatively significant amounts of money being awarded. But contests sometimes award the beautiful over the down and dirty and so have limited appeal. We need new companies, built by energetic visionary people.

So, how about this. Go for your MBA or even better, an Entrepreneurship minor attached to an engineering, biology or English degree.  As you are awarded your degree, you are handed a check equal to the past few years tuition as seed money to get your great idea further off the ground.

This would build on the networks of angel investors and VC’s that currently circle the best schools. It’s not a lot of money to get a business going, so it would force real cardboard creativity on the participants. That provides bang for the buck. The Universities get a piece of the action through stock and it forces degrees and teachers to get dirty fingernails as they see in real time if their theories work to build value in this old economy of ours.

Update 07/10/09: Corrected MBA link.

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16 Responses to Shaking Up the MBA | Dirty Fingernails Entrepreneurship

  1. Brad Shorr says:

    Fred, There is no substitute for getting in the trenches. My father drilled that into me, though I admit it took me a long time to see the wisdom. If you want to understand how things work, you’ve got to do the work.
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..Business Model Innovation Comes before Branding and Marketing =-.

  2. LaVonn says:

    Awesome idea. This really creates a very clear value chain in education!

  3. Funny how hard it is to pass on hard won information. I still find myself relearning things my dad had taught me better about through the years.

  4. Certainly could be fun. Maybe keep kids from dozing off in class as well. 🙂

  5. J.D. Meier says:

    I like the Dirty Fingernails metaphor. There is nothing like digging in.

    The big thing I’ve learned from shipping ideas over many years is that you really can’t predict success and that the best ideas on paper, fail when the rubber meets the road. It really is about testing your results and bouncing things against reality to see what sticks.

    In the school of life, there is a lot to be said for having a system that puts you up to bat more often and having mentors that help you tailor advice for your context or situation.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Likeability is a Skill =-.

  6. LaVonn says:


    I agree completely that it is all about the number of at bats in the “school of life.” I think that is where the “life at school” falls down in teaching, especially in the MBA programs. You only get once swing most of the times and students are taught hit it out of the park on the first swing or else. This effort/reward system doesn’t prepare our young business executives for failure as a learning event….I think that is a lesson MBA programs have to learn how to teach.


  7. Hi J.D., Absolutely. That’s why I say Ideas is a lot like Frogs… You’ve got to kiss a bunch of them before figuring out which one is the prince!

    For many people the danger comes in when they become to complacent about their ability to predict winners. Truth is, if you aren’t swinging and missing on a regular basis then you’re probably letting a lot of unusual opportunities pass you by.

  8. Alex Nash says:

    I too like the Dirty Fingernails metaphor.

    Since my career started as a custom manager, i learned that as much as work teaches you, no degree or educative material can teach you, being an MBA, i have learned nothing, but being a entrepreneur i got everything, what educative tutorials teaches you are just for interviews, real work starts at field

    In the school of life, there is a lot to be said for having a system that puts you up to bat more often and having mentors that help you tailor advice for your context or situation.

  9. Andrew says:


    Speaking from a personal viewpoint, my ‘business’ degree trained me to become exactly what I was for the first seven years of my working life – a back office employee!

    Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong at all with being a back office employee, and business schools certainly need to provide adequate training in terms of important back office business functions. But I certainly got the feel during the course of my studies that the higher education environment, at least in Australia, was not something which was geared towards the fostering of an entrepreneurial mindset or culture amongst developing young adults.

    With regards to your idea, I would say that you would have lost ninety-nine per cent of university deans the moment you mentioned anything about the university handing them a cheque!

    But broadly, I agree with your comments. Entrepreneurialism is not about staying comfortable in back offices – it’s about getting your hands dirty at the coal face
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..June contributors =-.

  10. @ Andrew – I don’t know if I would have lost that many deans. Many of the top schools here in the states have aggressive investment funds and research parks that try to move research out into the real world. I’m not sure this is a huge intuitive leap with that in mind, simply a way to take the schools entrepreneurship knowledge and ensure it gets real trial.

    Of course, the exception is what often proves the rule in terms of good education. Business schools have delivered a huge amount of managerial and financial education, in general raising the overall level of management world wide. The focus on managing the firm and making decisions within a going concern however, can let down the entrepreneur who often needs to think from a different standpoint. And Andrew, Have a great time on your travels around South Korea. Sounds fantastic.

  11. Terry Heath says:

    I don’t think they offered an Entrepreneurship minor with my English MA, but it’s a great idea. Just like business majors have to figure out what to do with their book-earned knowledge, an English major like me has to figure it out too.

    Any ideas? No seriously, really. Any ideas?

    I guess it’s a good example of the old “those who can’t do, teach.” I wonder how many business school majors go into teaching. I know lots of English majors do!
    .-= Terry Heath´s last blog ..Cinematic Narration and Shakespeare’s Plays =-.

  12. Pingback: Life and Blogging Without Regrets — Terry Heath

  13. Terry, I’m not sure what degree you have to earn in order to avoid having to ask the question “what do I do with it now…” There’s always a disconnect when you go from book to life it seems. Of course there’s a bit of ‘thank goodness’ in that since it leaves things wide open to being written ourselves. Hey, if we have to write our own futures I guess that puts an English MA ahead, doesn’t it? 🙂

  14. Pingback: Life and Blogging Without Regrets

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