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MBAs and Entrepreneurship: Q&A with EMLYON Grad Kerranna Williamson

MBAs and Entrepreneurship: Q&A with EMLYON Grad Kerranna Williamson

This article is written by John Bankston from QS for EMLYON Business Scool.

The notion of earning an MBA before pursuing a career as an entrepreneur may seem like driving your Volvo to paratrooper training to some. You may think that there’s a substantial difference between the risk takers who start businesses and the b-school grads they hire if the enterprise is successful. Some of the world’s top entrepreneurs never graduated from college, let alone grad school.

Yet today numerous MBA programs offer courses or entire specializations devoted to entrepreneurship. The underlying belief is that starting a successful company is more of a science than an art. Even if risk taking is in one’s DNA, risk alone doesn’t guarantee success, nor does it preclude the preparation which often divides success and failure.

EMLYON’s year-long International MBA programme includes the ‘Entrepreneurial Leadership Project’, a nine-month consultancy assignment which puts students’ classroom learning to immediate use. According to the school’s own parlance, International MBA students at EMLYON Business School, “focus on understanding how and why entrepreneurship starts, why it fails and what can be learnt from the mistakes of entrepreneurs.”

“Evidence-based entrepreneurship is essentially teaching entrepreneurship with the best scientific evidence that we have today, not with the things that we believe to be true,” reflects Professor Pablo Martin de Holan, program director of the Global Entrepreneurship Program. This all goes towards fulfilling the school’s motto – “Educating Entrepreneurs for the World.”

Entrepreneurs need all the help and encouragement they can get at present. According to US Federal Reserve data, the share of people under 30 who own their own business reached a 24-year low in 2013. Recessions often push laid-off workers toward entrepreneurship, but the most recent economic downturn did not seem to have this effect.

In an effort to encourage future entrepreneurs, toy manufacturers are designing entrepreneur dolls. Marketed to aspiring entrepreneurial girls, the dolls could be a step in the right direction according to Ted Ganchiff of Chicago’s Science and Entrepreneurship Exchange, who worried on the pages of the Wall Street Journal that, “We are creating generations of people who are terrified to make a mistake.”

When Kerranna Williamson was the same age as girls buying those dolls, she remembers having “a million and one creative ideas for small businesses. When I was 10 years old, my 7 year old sister and I started a bank for families and friends – we thought it was brilliant that people would let us hold onto their money in exchange for small piece of it.”

The Charleston, South Carolina native ran a business in high school selling handbags and purses she designed and sewed by hand. In college, however, she pursued a pre-med education earning a BS in Biology from the College of Charleston. After graduation, she briefly attended medical school and worked in scientific research. Yet, her desire to run her own business did not fade. She decided to earn an MBA.

Last October, she became one of the 200,000 women who start a business in the US each month (an average of 325,000 are started by men). We caught up with Williamson to speak about her experiences in entrepreneurship and how her MBA at EMLYON Business School provided the background she needed.

Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur? 

I didn’t always know that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but looking back I can see that I’ve always had an entrepreneurial bent. My grandfather was an entrepreneur and I think the spirit is in my blood. I was a creative child and grew up in a family that encouraged me to pursue my ideas.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the share of people under 30 who own businesses is at a 24-year low. Private business ownership among all age groups has been declining over the last 25 years as well. What do you think can be done to improve this?

I think that entrepreneurs have a powerful role in encouraging others to start their own business. It starts with inspiring and empowering people from a young age to build the skills that make taking the risk totally worth it. Couple this culture of possibility with a strong community of resources and collaborators, and voila – the bright and creative pursue their ideas and start building their own businesses.

What advice would you offer to young people who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs? 

I would say start now – be an entrepreneur now! There is no time better than the present to start creating and building and being an entrepreneur. If you have an idea, and imagine a way that it can make money, go for it! I also recommend connecting with others who do what you dream of doing. Participate in meet ups or other networking/social events. If you read an article about a new startup and want to know more, message people from the company and ask questions about their experiences. You’d be surprised at how much that makes an entrepreneur’s day.

Since high student loan debt is often a deterrent to starting a business, how does a budding entrepreneur reconcile the expense of an MBA with the desire to be a business owner? 

Just like any decision has to be weighed for its risks against its benefits, it is important to evaluate how you can get the most out of an MBA and how it will contribute to growing your own business. Also, I am a very thrifty person – something that I believe has been useful as I have bootstrapped my own company. It’s not about being a penny pincher, but more about being smart with money. I knew that in order to start my own company after an MBA that I would need a plan for how to finance the company, cover my own expenses, and pay towards school debt. Thankfully my smart saving and frugal living have made this feasible.

Why did you choose EMLYON?

The MBA has a strong international emphasis. In my MBA class there were 30 students representing 18 countries – the diversity was exceptional. It was also important to me that our professors had professional and personal experience all over the globe.

Doing my MBA in Europe allowed me to connect with individuals and businesses in the region. It functioned as a gateway for me to establish myself professionally in this region. I preferred to do an intense program and only miss one year in the workforce.

One of the best opportunities I had during my program was in collaboration with a Lyon-based biotech startup (Neolys Diagnostics). A team of three of us MBAs helped the company develop a plan to enter the US market. We ended up competing at UT-Austin with our business plan and won an elevator pitch competition!

How did your network of cohorts help you as you began your own business?

I have had such great support from my MBA colleagues! I am in touch with several classmates on a regular basis and have received direct help, from getting answers to technology questions to connecting me with strategic businesses or individuals. And, I have an international grassroots marketing network through my classmates! We keep an open online forum where we keep each other up to date and help when there are specific needs.

And finally, tell me about your business.

My business, WorkAway Ventures, Inc, is a startup focused on bringing technology solutions to the commercial real estate industry. Our flagship product, vāga, is an online marketplace that helps individuals and companies find short-term workspace. Workspaces can be anything from a conference room for the afternoon, a desk for the week, a private office for the month, or even warehouse space for seasonal inventory. Through vāga, companies with extra space can now lower their overhead costs by accessing the growing number of startups, digital nomads, and free agents that need short term space. vāga is like an Airbnb and Uber for workspace. The ‘Find a vāgaspace’ campaign will see our team help people looking for space WHEN and WHERE they need it (anywhere on the globe!) via Twitter.

How Kerranna Williamson saved money as an MBA student…

  • Scholarships! EMLYON offered me an academic merit scholarship for my GMAT score. Well worth the effort.
  • I lived very frugally throughout my MBA program. It is easy to live and eat well at low expense in France if you do it right.
  • I chose to live with roommates to reduce my rent and Sunday markets were my thing – beautiful fresh produce that cost almost nothing.
  • I saved every penny from my post-MBA job. For strategic reasons I took a three-month management position in San Diego, before joining an accelerator program. This brought me back to the USA and allowed me to save up big time.
  •  decided to launch vāga in my hometown of Charleston, SC. This meant moving into my parents’ house to save on rent – they are huge fans of me pursuing vāga and have been very supportive by welcoming me home!

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