Studying for an MBA turned Samantha Penabad into an entrepreneur, even though, as the former strategy manager at Accenture says, “I didn’t come to school to start something.”

At Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, however, she had an idea for a digital donation platform to help individuals invest in philanthropic ventures.

Tutors encouraged her to develop the business plan, a classmate from the finance sector became a co-founder and they will launch the service, called the GivingFund, later this month.

Ms Penabad, 29, will not be counted in the school’s statistics on graduates starting businesses immediately after graduation because she is going to work full-time in a strategy and operations role at Google in New York. “Being around so many people at Haas who had taken the plunge themselves, gave me the confidence to say ‘I am a founder’,” she says. “But this is still a side hustle.”

Many top business schools on the FT’s annual global MBA ranking list have reported a dip in start-up activity this year, particularly in the US. A rise in the number of students setting up businesses as a side project, like Ms Penabad, is one explanation.

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© Tim Griffith

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Stanford Graduate School of Business, which topped both the Global MBA ranking and the list of top MBA courses for entrepreneurs published on Monday, recorded a drop in the proportion of students starting a business within three years of graduation, from 36 per cent in 2017 to 22 per cent this year.

In 2017, 52 per cent of the MBA class from Babson College’s Olin Graduate School of Business reported starting a company in the three years after graduation. This year the proportion has dropped to 37 per cent.

Behind these figures there are signs that MBA students are just as interested in being entrepreneurial as in previous years, but do not see the need to give up a full-time job offer to start a business.

£10m

MBA students, at Cass Business School, with a new business idea can tap into financial support from the school’s £10m investment fund

One of the most popular options for MBA graduates has been to join one of the large technology companies which visit campuses looking for recruits. Amazon is seen by many MBA students as a stepping stone to going it alone, with the added benefit that they could earn enough to pay off student loans, according to Heather Byrne, managing director of the Career Development Office at Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

“Freedom is important to entrepreneurs, but in order to be truly free you have to be financially free,” she says.

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At Ross, five out of last year’s MBA cohort of 407 students set up a business immediately after graduation, up from three people in a class of 455 in 2015. This compared with 38 students on last year’s MBA class who took a job at Amazon, up from 30 in 2015. This year Amazon was the biggest employers of MBA talent at Ross.

Dee Clarke, senior manager of campus recruiting at Amazon, says MBA candidates who have previously started businesses tend to do well in interviews because they can display evidence of leadership.

“We welcome applicants with an entrepreneurial spirit,” Ms Clarke says. “They are given the ownership over their work, like they would [in] their own business, but within a global support network that provides added guidance and support.”

MBA candidates who have previously started businesses tend to do well in interviews because they can display evidence of leadership

At many schools, there is growing interest in studying entrepreneurship as a discipline. “In the past we had to convince people to start their own business,” says Costas Andriopoulos, associate dean for entrepreneurship at London’s Cass Business School. “Now they come with ready-made ideas.”

Cass’s campus is next to Shoreditch, an area where many tech ventures started and which hosts networking events almost every night. This proximity has helped excite interest among those with an entrepreneurial bent, Mr Andriopoulos says.

MBA students with a new business idea can tap into financial support from Cass’s £10m investment fund. There is no evidence that students start companies because of the fund, but it has supported several MBA start-ups over the 19 years it has operated and encouraged others to understand the process of investing, according to Mr Andriopoulos. “It helps the whole class to become venture capitalists,” he says.

Guthrie Jones, a former ship broker for the oil and gas sector, was “pretty set against” entrepreneurship when he started studying for an MBA at Cass last year. While researching business models, he changed his mind. “I didn’t have an epiphany,” he says. “It was an idea in my head that kept nagging at me.”

His project, Icepick, allows people to rent out space on their hard drives. He plans to start fundraising soon for a product launch in 2019.

Although Mr Guthrie has big ambitions for the venture, claiming it could be a global business, he would still take a salaried role after graduation if the right opportunity came up, ideally in the renewable energy finance industry. After all, he says, “I have student loans to repay.”

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