The Dropouts Return

What B-school can't teach.

But with most MBA programs lasting 18 months to two years–and the dot-com options far from surefire these days–some recruiters now see dropping out of a graduate program as a sign of impatience rather than entrepreneurial valor. Still, even failed ventures add value to a résumé if the candidate has circled back to earn an MBA, says Peter McLean, co-head of the global financial officers practice at retained recruiting firm Spencer Stuart. “It shows a certain capacity for risk that is probably really good for CFOs,” he says.

Tom Ritchie, who is returning to the University of Virginia’s Darden School after a year handling the financial and legal work for CookItNice Mediaworks, praises his experience at the Hollywood start- up, which was attempting to produce weekly TV shows linked to a Web site. “It was the extension of my education that I’d hoped for,” he says. And for a time, he used it to overcome his frustration at being unable to apply what he had learned in the classroom. The company, though, failed to make the first round of deal negotiation or financing. (Ritchie blames fickle agents, who welcomed the business plan with “euphoria [and then] dropped the idea months after.”)

SCHOOL AS RECESS

Not everybody who leaves a program early returns to school. After dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School last year to work at NetConversions Inc., a marketing services firm based on a Wharton professor’s research, Andy Liu and David Niu found structuring private equity rounds on the road to be far more stimulating than classroom exercises.

“In business school, you learn how the deals work,” says Liu, CEO of the Seattle start-up, “but you don’t know how much flexibility or leverage you have until you do them.” The classes “don’t tell you what the standard in the market is these days” for deal variables like interest rates and covenants, he continues. Liu and Niu say returning to school isn’t totally out of the question, though they don’t plan to break into their schedules for a while. “I might go back,” says COO Niu, “to take a breather.”

–Alix Nyberg

BACK TO THE BOOKS

Below are some leading business schools’ policies on granting leaves to MBA students.

SCHOOL

FULL-TIME MBA STUDENTS STANDARD MAXIMUM LEAVE GRANTED DURING PROGRAM
Babson College (Olin) 451  6 years
University of Chicago 1,058  5 years
Columbia University 1,155 Case by case*
Dartmouth College (Tuck) 400 5 years
Duke University (Fuqua) 670 1 year
Harvard Business School 1,767  5 years
Northwestern University (Kellogg) 1,200 5 years
University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) 1,542 5 years
Stanford University 740 Leaves are highly discouraged
University of Virginia (Darden) 488 2 years

* Typical of most schools without formal leave policies. 
SOURCE: The schools

A MATTER OF DEGREE

An MBA is hardly essential for becoming finance chief.

  • 35% of Fortune 500 CFOs are MBAs
  • *20% are CPAs
  • 5% are both MBAs and CPAs

*As of June 2000; all numbers approximate.
Source: Spencer Stuart

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