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What You Learn Matters More Than Where You Learn It

In an article posted on TechCrunch, an entrepreneur-turned-academic writes about his research into the relationship between successful entrepreneurship and the education of the business founders. What found in his profiles of successful business leaders might surprise you. Author Vivek Wadhwa is a research associate at Harvard and chairs a research division at Duke.

In one of his surveys he looked at the educational credentials of American born tech company founders. They interviewed 628 business founders who received their education from 287 unique universities. Almost every major U.S. university was represented in the group; the top ten schools represented by this group had produced only 19% of the sample. In other words, the Dartmouths, Yales, and Berkeleys accounted for less than one fifth of the successful entrepreneurs. The other 81% graduated from "regular" schools.

The next survey they conducted looked into the overall backgrounds of the founders of 549 successful businesses across a range of high-growth industries. The proportion of top schools in this sample was even smaller. But the statistics that emerged about when these entrepreneurs made their move does a lot of damage to the image of the twenty-something geeks who start tech businesses and make millions doing the only thing they know.

The survey showed that businessmen with MBA degrees acted sooner after graduation than those with bachelor's degrees - but the difference was thirteen years after graduation as opposed to seventeen years. All of these professionals had years of business experience. Both there groups moved faster than the PhD grads, who waited an average of 21 years before establishing their own businesses.

Returning to the degree orientation, they noted that holders of information technology degrees acted faster than the MBA graduates - thirteen years versus fifteen years. Bringing up the rear were the graduates with applied science degrees, who opened their doors twenty years after graduation. Of course, neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs waited at all - they dropped out of college to go into business.

Mr. Wadhwa makes the point that the successful entrepreneurs he interviewed valued their education. Seventy percent of the graduates from regular colleges endorsed the importance of their learning experience, while eighty one percent of the Ivy League graduates said the same. Less than twenty percent of either group found networking with fellow alumni to be important.

The message in these surveys is clear: it's what you learn that matters, not where you learn it. An Ivy League degree makes it easier to get into high level law firms or investment houses, but those opportunities have nothing to do with entrepreneurship.

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