MBA Students Currently Active in Entrepreneurship

Illuminate’s New Research Reinforces Our Conviction in Hands-On Learning for Future Entrepreneurs

By Cindy Padnos, founder and managing partner of Illuminate Ventures

As both an entrepreneur and a venture capitalist, I can easily say that my MBA education at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business had an immeasurable impact on my success; the program gave me an opportunity to develop the sort of quantitative and analytical thinking that would bolster my capabilities and my self-confidence in both starting and investing in companies. While at Tepper, I also had the opportunity to gain practical, hands-on experience via several unique internships during the class year. One was with a startup, and the other with a large corporation, and in each case, I had the good fortune to be mentored by an experienced and supportive businessperson.

These formative career experiences sparked my desire to find a way to involve MBA students as interns at Illuminate, and they have since become an integral part of our firm. Our interns actually encouraged our latest research effort examining the MBA interest in entrepreneurship and venture capital as career choices.

As part of our data gathering, we surveyed over 500 students across more than 20 top MBA programs in the United States and discovered interest in the entrepreneurial career path was much higher than we expected. Some 85% of respondents — 88% of men, 80% of women — were already weighing the idea of becoming an entrepreneur, a stat that increased further after the start of the pandemic.

Our whitepaper based on the survey data also analyzed student perceptions of venture capital. While many MBA students were interested in venture capital as a career — 63% of men, 53% of women — most of them strongly believed it would be hard to enter the space. Many students believed the best opportunity to be exposed to VC was through an internship, but unfortunately, very few of these roles exist.

We weren’t surprised to learn of the interest in practical experience in venture capital. Over the years, we’ve heard again and again from our interns that Illuminate’s year-long internship is unique — which is regrettable, because the program is truly win-win. Our internship program has allowed our small firm to punch well above its weight class. Among many other important tasks, our interns accelerate Illuminate’s ability to collect data for our due diligence efforts, work with us on our research-based articles and papers, and sometimes collaborate directly with our portfolio companies to survey the competitive landscape. In parallel, the MBA students get the exposure to venture capital and startups that they crave. In 10 years, we have now graduated over 70 MBA students from our program, some of whom have gone on to become entrepreneurs themselves, having had the advantage of seeing the path from an investor’s lens. As a prior founder myself, I know I would have been better prepared to raise capital from VCs if this type of opportunity had been open to me.

By design, our past interns have also been 70% diverse. As a firm, we have always had a keen interest in expanding opportunities for underrepresented populations in our high-tech startup ecosystem, especially among women, and starting with students has felt like a good way to jumpstart that goal. Our research showed that over a third more male students already had a startup idea versus female students, and more men than women (48% versus 34%) were already pursuing an entrepreneurial project. So, while women are clearly interested in entrepreneurship, they do seem to move a bit more slowly to realize that goal than their male counterparts.

It’s not entirely clear to me why women are hesitating to take action on their career aspirations, but I’ve seen it play out directly in our own internship recruiting process. More than once, I’ve met truly outstanding women in top programs, who’ve expressed dismay at missing out on our internship opportunity. When I’ve asked them why they didn’t apply, the all-too frequent answer? “I didn’t think I was qualified.” When there are so few opportunities for hands-on learning, and so few venture-backed female founders and women partners at VCs, perhaps it’s not shocking they feel this way; the lack of exposure to the field, or knowledge of other women in the field, may reinforce a lack of confidence in entrepreneurship or venture investing as viable career paths.

My partner, Jennifer Savage, and I consistently credit our early internships and mentors for the many doors that they opened. These experiences gave us frontline opportunities to envision ourselves on career paths we’d never previously conceived of. As such, we are big believers in expanding hands-on learning. Working to increase internship opportunities for all students will enable them to confidently pursue a wider range of enriching careers. We hope more firms will join us in expanding practical internships for a broad and diverse set of students.

Early stage VC focused on enterprise software startups. Experienced founder, relentlessly focused on helping great entrepreneurs succeed!