Teaching high-school math for two years in Early, Iowa, after earning a mathematics degree at Iowa State was enjoyable for Watkins, but he felt constrained by the career. Further, his annual salary in 1997 for teaching and being the school’s basketball, football and track coach was roughly $25,000.
“Teaching isn’t as financially rewarding as other professions, and there are no advancement opportunities,” he says. “If you are a really, really good teacher, in your second year you’ll be paid the same as any other second-year teacher and less than a really bad teacher with 10 years’ experience.”
To increase his options, Watkins enrolled in the M.B.A. program at Iowa State’s College of Business in 1997, graduating two years later with a specialization in finance. When interviewing for jobs, he decided to accept an offer to become a management trainee at Omaha-based Commercial Federal Bank because the bank would move him throughout its departments. However, his wife was working in Des Moines and he opted to remain there, so he became a commercial-loan underwriter instead. Three-and-a-half years later, he’s the department manager.
Watkins likes his role because it involves approving large loans and allows him to meet company decision makers and analyze their businesses’ future prospects. He hopes to move up in the bank by relocating to its Omaha headquarters eventually. Financially, his M.B.A. has more than repaid itself. Watkins worked as a research assistant in business school, which paid about a third of the school’s $4,400 annual tuition for state residents. Now age 30, he earns close to triple his teacher’s salary and is rewarded for his performance, one of his original career objectives.
Lauren Creamer earned a health-related degree in 1996 from Vassar College and then worked in an orphanage in Ecuador. She returned to the United States to take a variety of jobs at nonprofit organizations in the San Francisco Bay area, including counseling runaway youths, developing programs for children with HIV, and running a YWCA entrepreneur’s program for teenage girls.
From the latter job, she realized that a business could support and help people in a positive way. “Working with kids transformed me in terms of how I thought about business,” she says. “I knew I wanted to start a company, but I didn’t know enough about the processes of business to execute the idea effectively.”
She enrolled in the two-year entrepreneurship M.B.A. program at Babson College’s F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business in 2000. Initially, she didn’t know what type of business she wanted to start, but the Babson program helped her clarify that “kids were my passion and always would be.”
She’s now president and CEO of Firefly Toys Inc., which she started in Babson’s incubator. A “therapeutic” toy company, Firefly makes products, such as stuffed animals or kits, to help caregivers work with children who are going through difficult life experiences. Now based in New York City, the company has about $100,000 in seed financing and services.
While Creamer expects to make money as an entrepreneur, making a difference in the world is her main motivation. She has about $35,000 in student loans to repay but says the expense is worth it. “I got a whole new set of skills I can use to start a company,” she says. “The M.B.A. has paid for my freedom. Now I don’t have to work for anyone else.”