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MBAs accelerate into entrepreneurs

If you’re a would-be entrepreneur considering an MBA, how crucial is it to choose a business school with an accelerator?

Group of entrepreneurs

Cambridge MBA graduate entrepreneurs currently going through Cambridge Judge Business School’s Accelerate Cambridge programme, based within the Entrepreneurship Centre, talk about how it’s working for them.

Tessema Tesfachew (MBA 2013)

Tessema Tesfachew

Tessema Tesfachew (MBA 2013) didn’t know his business school offered a dedicated entrepreneurship accelerator when he signed up for the Cambridge MBA. He was very glad to find, half-way through his MBA year, that it did. Teams of two or more, with one member having a “Cambridge connection”, are invited to apply to participate in the programme after their MBA studies are completed.

Bitten by the entrepreneurship bug while scouting for entrepreneurs for the World Economic Forum, Tessema met his co-founders on his MBA programme and they discovered the Accelerate Cambridge programme together, while exploring how to bring their idea to market.

Now that their start-up, Assembly Networking, is attracting customers with its plug and play, licensed approach to building customised mobile apps, how does he rate his experience of the accelerator?

“We wouldn’t have made progress so quickly without the accelerator. One of the features that we found really useful was the Business Model Canvas – a diagrammatic approach to drilling down into your business’s component parts to deeply explore their viability. This encourages you to really think about the specifics of your business and the environment it operates in. Without the Accelerate Cambridge’s approach to this, it would have taken us a lot longer to cover all bases.

“Then there are the weekly classes with expert speakers on everything from branding, employment law and marketing to setting up prototypes, seeking investment and how to trademark. This is practical information from real experts and every week we were learning something new and valuable.”

The regular Mentor Days were also a huge benefit, says Tessema, offering access to as many as six or seven expert mentors over the course of one day:

“It was a superb way to make progress fast and it’s the main piece of advice I would give to new entrepreneurs. Don’t underestimate the importance of good mentors. I did not realise how invaluable they are.”

Thomas Miller (MBA 2013)

Thomas Miller

For Tom Miller (MBA 2013), co-founder of Cambridge Energy Partners, an accelerator wasn’t high on his list because he thought he might be headed for a corporate future, post-MBA:

“I was considering all options including management consultancy, impact investment and corporate roles. Then two of my fellow MBA students spotted my experience with infrastructure projects in the public and private sectors and approached me about their start-up idea. I immediately saw the potential.”

Being taken on by Accelerate Cambridge was a big stepping-stone for Cambridge Energy Partners, who are developing a model for selling clean, sustainable energies to developing countries at affordable rates:

“We needed connections in the UK, especially London, as none of the team was from the UK. The programme gave us great opportunities for mentoring and a space to work from. We began to gain momentum after we joined the Accelerate Cambridge programme, because they helped us start to think like entrepreneurs – especially how to frame our offering to potential investors.”

Then there are the benefits you don’t expect:

“You learn a lot from the other teams on the accelerator. No one is in competition so everyone is willing to help each other. You get to observe the approach of other teams – especially in terms of problem-solving – and that is invaluable. In Cambridge you get access to a fantastic network of fellow-entrepreneurs, mentors who are successful entrepreneurs and people who are leaders in their field. Talking to people who understand business plans and market validity – nothing replaces those conversations. Desk research will only take you so far.”

No regrets? “Absolutely none! Sure, we’re boot strapping and living hand to mouth but the rewards are amazing. This year alone I’ve been to Taiwan, Peru, Southern Africa and the Middle East. We’ve now got senior people from banks and corporations talking to us and we know we have a chance to do something really special. I wouldn’t get any of that climbing the corporate ladder.”

And for Tessema? “It’s been a fascinating experience – even when our original business model didn’t work out and we had to quickly transform our offering. Accelerate Cambridge supported us through that process and now we’re in the process of signing customers. I’ve learnt so much so fast and I wouldn’t be doing anything else!’