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Natasha Pecor just finished her first year in the MBA program at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. But after interning this summer at Freestyle Capital, a San Francisco venture capital firm that finances early-stage startups, the 27-year-old may not pursue a second year.
Co-president of the High Tech Club at Duke, Pecor may join the small but growing number of would-be-MBAs who abandon their degrees in favor of the startup circuit. “That sort of accolade doesn’t make a difference here,” Pecor says of an MBA in the world of early-stage startups. “People care about the competence level I’m at; they don’t care how I got there.”
Dean Logan, who founded the startup Labor Sync in Dumont, N.J., three years ago, agrees with Pecor’s assessment. “I’m more interested in the person themselves,” says Logan, whose mobile app serves as a paperless timesheet that enables business owners to track the time and location of their workforce. “I want to know that they can really think outside the box—that they’re programming and doing projects in their spare time, regardless of whether they’ve started school, made it halfway through, or finished.”
For students like Pecor, who are not sure what they’ll want five years down the line, the decision to finish an MBA can be difficult. Pecor is currently on a scholarship; a second year at Duke would mean another $50,000 of debt—twice the amount she already owes. By shifting from tech to a more traditional corporate role, such as consulting or investment banking, she would be able to pay back her loans in no time. But it is no secret that positions at large companies may cease to be options with an incomplete MBA.
Pecor sees two options: returning to school and graduating early (her probable decision) or taking a leave of absence, which means something different to top schools around the country.
Fuqua makes things pretty easy for ambivalent MBAs—students in good academic standing can take leaves of absence for up to two years and are able to apply for multiple leaves. Most schools have similar policies, but some schools, such as the Stanford Graduate School of Business, don’t allow MBA students to withdraw for professional reasons at all. At the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, students can obtain leaves of absence but must complete their requirements within seven years of first enrolling in the program to obtain their degrees.
Dan Sullivan, director of academics at Haas, says he has spoken to three students this summer who are considering taking leaves, one for personal reasons and two for professional. So far, none has withdrawn. “On average there’s one [who withdraws] every other year,” Sullivan says, “but during the dot-com bubble, we had more, because people were staying at their summer jobs.”
Jack Oakes, assistant dean for career development at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, boasts similar numbers. “I’ve had a couple of students who have inquired about a leave of absence, but it’s difficult to take an extended leave of absence at Darden,” says Oakes, adding that such requests are handled on a case-by-case basis. Throughout the seven years he has worked at Darden, Oakes says fewer than five students have withdrawn for professional reasons.
After working at Lehman Brothers, where he invested in tech for about a year, Allen Wo enrolled in the MBA program at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, which gives MBAs five years to complete their degrees. Beginning his degree in 2009, Wo took a leave of absence the following winter to continue working at Eventbrite, an online event-planning company in San Francisco. “I got really lucky with my internship that summer,” Wo says of finding Eventbrite. “Halfway through the summer they thought I was doing a good job and started joking around that I should stay and not go back to school.” By the end of the summer, Wo agreed with his employers.
Following his internship, Wo, 29, returned to Kellogg for one quarter while continuing at Eventbrite part time. By Christmas, he was back in San Francisco, where he has remained ever since, working as Eventbrite’s mobile product manager. “I went into the internship to try out product management and make some money,” he says, “but the experience was so great [that] ultimately I had to ask myself: If I went back to school, could I find as good an opportunity as I have right now?”
Wo, who does not plan on returning to Kellogg, thinks not. “I feel like I fully captured the network,” he says. “The piece of paper that proves I got through business school is not as important to me. My grades were great—I think I got 90 percent of the value, and I don’t think I would have gained much more had I stayed. I think that’s pretty unique to tech, though.”