Design your own best MBA

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Yesterday I had breakfast with a college freshman. He wanted my advise on what to major in since he wants to open a retail business. His parents both have post grad degrees and he wondered if he should plan on doing an MBA. After asking him more about the kind of business he hoped to start, I advised him to major in English or Communications and take courses that interested him rather than classes that had anything to do with business. The look on his face was disbelief. “You mean I shouldn’t even do my bachelor’s degree in business?” he asked. I told him that unless he wants to get a job in a large corporation and spend his life climbing the ladder, he should look at college as a time to learn about people and study cultures and trends and anything else he finds fascinating. Then I told him that the most important thing he can do to prepare for starting any business is to go to work for a few businesses that interest him and study them like he was cramming for a final.

I advised him to work during college for a few businesses similar to what he wants to start, note everything that works in the business and most importantly, LISTEN to the customers and pay attention to what they like and what they don’t because his greatest lessons will come from observing how he can improve on what’s already being done in the industry.

I feel confident steering him in this direction based on my own experience over the past 35 years and that of other successful entrepreneurs. Probably more important is that I’ve watched too many business majors graduate with no practical knowledge or real world experience applicable to starting a business.

This was never more clear to me than several years ago when I sold a business to a retired college professor.  The first time we went on a buying trip, he turned to me and said, “Terri, I spent 40 years turning out MBAs and I just realized I don’t know the first thing about running a small business.” Everything he knew and taught in college was strictly theory.

My father on the other hand had to leave school at 14 and peddled fruit from a cart to support his widowed mother and younger siblings. After serving in WW2, he went to work for a few different companies selling products door to door for a commission. No salary. The knowledge he gained from that experience was more valuable than an MBA because earning a living meant really listening to what people wanted and understanding the mindset of his customer. True, he wouldn’t have been hired by a fortune 500 company but he did go on to start and operate several successful companies based on serving the needs of the average working class American. By observing the buying patterns and thought processes of his customers, he figured out what worked and what he could improve on.

If you’re 18, don’t go to college to get a job. Go to college to learn about whatever interests you because that is what will ignite the passion you’ll need to be fired up for success. Get a job working in businesses that intrigue you and study them like they were your masters thesis.  If you are midlife or later and laid off, retired or re-careering don’t spend the time and money going back for an MBA unless you want to work in a large corporation. If you want to start your own business, I urge you to go to work for a short while for businesses that interest you and listen to the customers or clients about what they like, what they don’t and what they would like to see different. Take what you’ve learned and make it better.

Your assignment for success:

Research the industry that interests you.

Select a couple of those businesses and get hired on in any position you can.

Observe. Ask questions.  Listen. Listen. Listen.

Now, ask yourself what you can do to better meet the customers’ needs and get started. Do it better.

You’ve earned something more valuable than an MBA.

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