How an MBA helped 10 start-up founders launch their businesses

BY Meghan MalasNovember 18, 2021, 2:04 PM

Graduates at Quincy College enter during the Quincy College graduation at Veterans Memorial Stadium, as seen in May 2021. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter—The Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Starting a business can be an overwhelming ordeal. No matter the industry, a founder is bound to make some mistakes and a company’s early days are likely to involve a lot of trial and error. In addition to preparation and perseverance, some founders say an MBA degree—and particularly the networking opportunities, financial knowledge, and problem-solving abilities people gain from these programs—was valuable for surviving missteps.

Fortune asked 10 start-up founders, who are enrolled in or graduated from executive, professional, full-time, and part-time MBA programs, to share how their MBA experience helped launch their businesses. Here’s what they said.

1. Doug Villhard, Second Street

“There is no better time to work on a business idea than while also earning your MBA,” says Doug Villhard, a 2014 graduate of Olin’s Executive MBA program at Washington University in St. Louis, who is now the academic director of Olin’s entrepreneurship platform. “In every class, you can apply the concepts you are learning both to the coursework and to your idea. Your network also immediately increases creating more opportunities for discovery conversations—not to mention MBA students often find a co-founder within their own class.”

Villhard says more doors tend to open when you are a student seeking help as opposed to someone just trying to sell something. He recently sold Second Street, an audience engagement platform he founded in 2007. He worked on building the platform, which had more than 500 clients, while enrolled in his MBA program.  

2. Anton Kogan, Emma’s Premium Services

“When applying to Rutgers’ MBA program, my startup company, Emma’s Premium Services, was based in my mom’s kitchen,” recalls Anton Kogan, who founded the ordering platform in 2014. “My idea was brushed off by almost everyone I knew.” 

 “A Rutgers MBA gave me the tools needed to develop supply chains, identify operational inefficiencies, and build a platform that positively impacted over a million families,” the part-time MBA graduate says. Kogan launched the company, which delivers care packages to New York State inmates, when he was struggling to find a job after serving 10 years for a drug-related offense. Emma’s Premium Services has grossed $6 million since its launch.  

“The staff and professors’ assistance reached beyond the classroom. The principles taught translated directly to operations in my fulfillment center the same night after class and proved to be just as valuable as the network I built at Rutgers Business School,” says Kogan, who completed the program in 2021. 

3. Juan Salinas, Perfect Life Nutrition

“When I started my company I felt very confident about my R&D, innovation and manufacturing skills but I felt I lacked knowledge in the business side of running a company,” says Juan Salinas, who plans to graduate from Rutgers’ part-time MBA program in the next couple of years. Before starting his company,  Salinas developed new food products for companies like Nestle, Nabisco, Kraft, Cadbury and Mondelez. 

“My classes in finance and accounting have had the most impact as I felt very uncomfortable in these areas before starting my business,” he says. “In addition to the classes, I have been able to develop a network with students and professors that have helped me with the different challenges of running a business.” 

Salinas founded Perfect Life Nutrition in 2015, and he won the Rutgers business plan competition and succeeded in getting an investment on Shark Tank in 2020.

4. Byron Porter, Hum Industrial Technology

“There’s a lot of commentary over the value of an MBA today, especially for starting a business and the highly romanticized ideal of a couple of college dropouts in a garage,” says Byron Porter, a 2020 graduate of the Olin MBA program at Washington University in St. Louis. “You certainly don’t need a degree like an MBA to start a successful company, but for me, it’s proven invaluable for two primary reasons: business intelligence and network.”

Porter, who founded Hum Industrial Technology in 2019, says both tools have allowed him to solve tough market entry problems where many other businesses have failed. Hum Industrial Technology develops wireless sensors for the rail transportation industry.

5. Justin Delaney, Menguin

“The MBA experience not only provided me with the education and framework to build Menguin, but it was also a gateway to connecting our team with a fantastic group of investors, which included alumni like Mark Cuban and Scott Dorsey,” says Justin Delaney, a 2013 graduate of the Kelley MBA program at Indiana University.  

Delaney started Menguin—an online men’s clothing rental business—with fellow Kelley grads Michael Gassman and Kurt Sutton. “I have leaned on the MBA network for employees, board members, and advice,” says Delaney, who sold the digital tuxedo rental company in 2017. 

6. Ryan Richt, Cofactor Genomics and Well Principled

“My Olin MBA gave me the analytical and planning tools to start a venture right out of college—my genomics startup wasn’t just well differentiated in the market, I used professor Anne Marie’s book to build a solid, 60-page business plan with a financial model that was accurate to within 10% through almost two years of hypergrowth,” says Ryan Richt, who graduated from Olin’s online MBA program in 2008. 

Richt founded Cofactor Genomics, a biotech company that does drug development, medical research, and personalized medicine using RNA-based information and technologies in 2008 and his tenure as CEO of the company ended in 2010. 

“A dozen years later, I’m returning to my MBA-school roots with a new venture, Well Principled, that replaces management consultants with A.I. built from consumer behavior models mined from the research of Olin and other top business schools,” Richt says. 

7. Gene Domecus, Domecus Financial Consulting

Gene Domecus, a 2005 graduate from Santa Clara University’s executive MBA program, says when he was given the opportunity to take on a senior finance role at a startup in the early days of eCommerce and multichannel retailing, it was all new territory for the company, the industry, the internet, and himself. 

Domecus previously served in executive roles at multiple early-stage e-commerce startups and a boutique venture capital firm. H, launched his own Interim CFO consulting practice, Domecus Financial Consulting, in 2021. Domecus Financial Consulting specializes in providing financial and operational leadership to help founders grow and scale their businesses. 

“I don’t think I could have done that without my EMBA,” he says. “The unique aspect of working with other tenured leaders in the valley from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences, allowed us to bring real-world problems into the classroom setting that served as projects to dissect, strategize and present findings/recommendations.”

8. Amanda Foley, DRIPTEK

“By the time I graduated, I had a feasibility study proving the viability of my business, a business plan with 5-year financial projections, an investor pitch deck—all completed as part of my entrepreneurship coursework—and the confidence to grow my father’s invention into a successful business,” says Amanda Foley, a graduate of Olin’s Professional MBA program. 

Foley and her classmate, Tom Dart, started DRIPTEK, a wire and rope lubrication system used in cranes and elevators. Foley and Dart launched during Foley’s last semester in the program, which she graduated from in 2021. DRIPTEK’s product is based on an invention Foley’s father created to improve safety while working on a crane at a New York construction site.

“An MBA education provided a unique opportunity to try and fail within the comfort of mock investor pitches to classmates, professors, and venture capitalists—this allowed my co-founder and I to fine-tune our value proposition and go-to-market strategy before the stakes were higher, without burning credibility in the market,” Foley notes. 

9. Theresa Krier Fleck, Big T NYC

“The entrepreneurial education and mentorship at Kelley taught me how important it is to set yourself up for success before launching your business,” notes Theresa Krier Fleck, a 2009 graduate of the MBA program at Indiana University.  

“For me, that meant getting a job after graduation – which felt counterintuitive at the time, since I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” says Krier, who founded Big T NYC, a couture tea brand, in 2013. 

Krier got the idea for the handcrafted, wellness beverage when she was backstage at New York Fashion Week and noticed the models were thirsty but were not interested in drinking the available sodas. 

“By being strategic in the roles I accepted, I was able to get additional training and build my network as I continued to refine my business plan,” she says. “It was this shift in thinking that opened me up to an incredibly rewarding experience at two different Fortune 500 companies, which ultimately made my company, Big T NYC couture tea, stronger and better positioned for success.”

10. Blake Sorensen, Blake’s Seed Based

“My MBA experience single-handedly made my business idea come to life,” says Blake Sorensen, a 2018 Kelley MBA graduate. “I started my business out of an entrepreneurship course my first year of my MBA and I was able to test concepts and ideas with classmates and professors to get valuable feedback.”

Sorensen founded Blake’s Seed Based, a company that produces allergy-free health snacks,  with one of his classmates in 2018. “I was able to take learnings from my classes and apply it in real-time to my business. The business wouldn’t exist today if I didn’t pursue my MBA and start the business while in school,” he adds

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best part-time, executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.

Christin Hakim

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