How One HBS Alum Leveraged Her MBA for Entrepreneurship

At Menlo Coaching, we believe in careful decision making about all the ins and outs of your MBA, including what comes after. Founding partner, David White sat down with Jamie Cheney, a 2007 graduate of Harvard Business School (HBS) and the founder of the very successful recruiting company, Prokanga, to discuss the pros and cons of entrepreneurship as well as how the HBS MBA helped her thrive as a business owner. 

Interview with Jamie Cheney, HBS Graduate (’07) & Prokanga Founding Partner

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Jamie Cheney’s Path to Prokanga

Growing up, Jamie had a fairly traditional background for a top MBA student: she attended prep school, Yale University for undergrad, and established a successful corporate career. She went on to attend Harvard Business School; after the MBA, although she had planned to pursue a career in advertising, entrepreneurship became more and more appealing over time.

When Jamie made the decision to start her own business, she was swamped under a client-facing, travel heavy role at her company. Work pressures were not Jamie’s only consideration. She had two children and was expecting her third. Unfortunately, these two worlds–the business world and the parenting world–can be difficult to balance. Jamie recounts capable, high-level peers in her mommy groups and baby classes talking about wanting to do project work or even considering leaving the workforce altogether.

Back in the corporate side of her life, the team she led at the time had grown rapidly, and the company literally did not have the capacity to house them. While temporarily utilizing office space from WeWork, Jamie overheard start-up companies bemoaning the lack of talent: “If we could just find a talented person to do X” or “I wish we could get a good person to head up project Y”.

It was the start of an idea to introduce companies to mothers with high-performing business careers who wanted flexible, project-based work. She tested the concept by putting up a Squarespace splash page, opened a PayPal account, and contacting other women in her HBS network.

When her maternity leave was nearing its end, she chose to work on her own business rather than returning to her previous employer, because having flexibility for her family was a critical factor. Thus, Prokanga was born. Although she admits entrepreneurship was difficult at the start, her company has grown into a major success. Jamie cannot deny that the HBS education prepared her exceptionally well for entrepreneurship, even if that wasn’t the plan when she obtained her MBA. Additionally, she credits some of her achievement with the luck of her timing—having a great idea just as she went on maternity leave—but also insists that it would have been difficult to work her current job with three kids. 

The Benefits of a Top MBA Program for Entrepreneurs 

While an “MBA in Entrepreneurship” may sound like the perfect route for future new business owners, actually, getting a general MBA degree from a top business school is even more valuable. Jamie credits her HBS MBA with much of her success at Prokanga, citing reasons that include:

Entrepreneurship vs. Traditional MBA Careers

Jamie was able to “have it all” by finding an entrepreneurial career that would give her professional success and the flexibility to spend time with her family.

Even though it can be difficult to manage work-life balance as an entrepreneur, many other MBA careers will have even larger time demands—like becoming a partner at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey—and offer less flexibility.

Some of the pros and cons of entrepreneurship according to Jamie:

Some Final Words on Entrepreneurship and the MBA

Jamie notes that it was hard to walk away from a full-time career in order to start something new. She is proud to have worked at top international advertising agencies during the rise of e-commerce with clients like Nike and American Express, and speaks fondly of those rewarding experiences. The Harvard grad could not have comprehended becoming an entrepreneur when she was in her early 20s; in fact, during her time as a business school student, she opted out of the MBA in entrepreneurship classes at HBS!

But what changed was her personal life. The time and dedication required by her children turned out to be the force that moved her from the stable path she was on. And, rather than retire from the business world, Prokanga and entrepreneurship became the solution that allowed her to both raise children and do lucrative, flexible work. She believes, firmly, that the MBA is a great insurance option for anyone who is thinking of changing their career. The versatility and confidence it provided for her allowed her to remain in a fulfilling work situation while taking time to be a mother and have a rich personal life.

Though entrepreneurship may seem risky, it can actually be lower risk when one considers the time and effort needed to advance in certain careers. Removing a political element from one’s career—not needing to gladhand a particularly prickly executive in a corporate career path, or navigate the downfall of a company whose senior management has made the business toxic for you—means that the risks are more firmly within your sphere of influence.

In the end, there is a certain aspect of humility in starting your own new business. One must admit that they are not going to be the next famous billionaire. But, in return, you receive a sense of greater control: control over your time, your finances, and your personal life. And that may ultimately be far more valuable.

See more from our interview with Jamie: Achieving Work-Life Balance as a Top MBA Graduate and Why Get an MBA, Even if You’re Unsure of Your Career Goals