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These executives did an MBA and started their own companies

Business schools are incubators of the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Three MBA students reveal how they were inspired to turn ideas into businesses.

Sian Powell

Once upon a time, executives undertook an MBA to accelerate their career or change industries.

For many that is still the case, but a growing number of students are choosing MBAs because they want to start their own business.

AGSM says a third of its MBA students want to become entrepreneurs.

Holly Richards is launching her company AmpleFolk after testing her business idea with her business school colleagues at the Australian Graduate School of Management.ย 

A global survey of unicorn start-ups conducted by bschools.org in 2019 found that one in four had at least one founder with an MBA.

โ€œTen years ago, students undertook an MBA primarily to accelerate their careers in their own industry or to change industries. Today, we are seeing very different trends in student motivation,โ€ says Professor Nick Wailes, director of AGSM at the UNSW Business School.

Sydney University has also noted a rise in the number of MBA students looking to go it alone, and in the number of students who develop a business idea with a fellow pupil and decide to start a business.

โ€œThere are a lot of people who do start-ups because of people they meet in the program,โ€ says Guy Ford, MBA program director at Sydney University Business School.

Ford was speaking ahead of the release on Friday of the inaugural AFR BOSS Best Business Schools list, which includes an array of post graduate courses, such as MBAs. There are separate lists for business schools with the best reputation, quality and which offer the best career prospects.

University of New South Wales is crowned the AFR BOSS Best Business School overall, while The University of Melbourne is the best-ranked business school for reputation. UNSW is the top-ranked school for career impact. Edith Cowan University is the top-listed business school for quality.

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Holly Richards, AmpleFolk

When the pandemic hit, Holly Richards was part of the way through an MBA at AGSM, having started it in 2018 after a long-term career as a newspaper and magazine journalist.

She discovered a niche in the market while exercising at home during the lockdowns. โ€œIโ€™ve always had a million ideas,โ€ Richards says. โ€œI have been plus-size my whole life and I have always found shopping for clothing in general very frustrating, if not impossible.โ€

Bigger bodies are largely ignored by the sports and active-wear industry and as her interest in exercising grew, Richards discovered she would not be able to buy a sports bra in her size. โ€œIt literally did not exist,โ€ she says.

So Richards decided to look into the idea of marketing a plus-sized sports bra.

The data was on her side. Although 67 per cent of Australian women are considered plus-sized (size 14 or larger), only 6.7 per cent of retailers offer plus-size clothes. The average Australian woman, she says, has a waist size that equates to a size 16 to 18. Yet it seemed sports bra manufacturers had decided to ignore plus-sized women altogether.

Richards jumped at the chance to explore her start-up ideas in a two-week AGSM incubator program called New Wave.

โ€œI used the sports bra idea, a radically adjustable sports bra for plus-sized women,โ€ she says. She won the programโ€™s pitch competition and received nearly 700 responses to a survey on the bra idea.

โ€œHundreds and hundreds of women joined the wait list before we even had anything.โ€

Her company, AmpleFolk, will launch its first collection early next year, and it will include the plus-sized sports bra, along with leggings and a towel, designed with the assistance of a professional swimwear designer.

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Richards says she focused her MBA studies on solving AmpleFolk business problems, building a comprehensive business plan, a growth strategy spanning five to 10 years and scenario planning for risk mitigation. It was all new to her, she says: โ€œI didnโ€™t even know how to create a spreadsheet.โ€

But she feels confident she understands the intricacies of business planning.

David Mallett, Yanun Project Services

David Mallett started his company in 2019, three-quarters of the way through an MBA with The University of Adelaide, motivated by his passion to strike out on his own and build an Indigenous-owned and run business. โ€œWeโ€™re quite an under-represented crowd in professional services,โ€ he says.

A Ngarrindjeri man from south-eastern South Australia, Mallett joined the Navy after leaving school. He worked with Australiaโ€™s elite special forces as a clearance diver and later as a sniper with 2nd Commando Regiment, part of Tactical Assault Group East. After time in Iraq training Iraqi police, Mallett was forced to return to Australia because of significant back injuries requiring surgery and rehabilitation.

David Mallett started his own company while doing a masterโ€™s degree in project management at the University of South Australia.ย 

He turned to the private sector and further education, and graduated from the University of South Australia with a masterโ€™s degree in project management in 2011.

โ€œI enjoyed that type of work. I spent some time in the construction industry and then a couple of years with Iluka Resources,โ€ he says.

Mallett worked on planning and scheduling mining development projects, but finally decided to move on, starting an MBA degree with the University of Adelaide and launching his own company, Yanun Project Services, in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic burst across Australia soon after Mallett launched his company, but he had already nailed down a two-year contract with the Defence Department on the ill-fated Future Submarine Program, which provided his young company with a soft landing.

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The MBA course at Adelaide boosted his confidence in his business skills and provided a solid foundation of knowledge to build on, he says. โ€œI felt I had the motivation to start my own business, but I probably lacked the polish of knowing all the methodologies, understanding the ins and outs,โ€ he says.

โ€œIโ€™ve been a really good operational-type person, but I needed to step out of that and be on the balcony looking down.โ€

Mallett graduated this month and his company is up and running, consulting on capital works projects across the nation for clients such as Defence, the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation, and Aurecon (for Transport NSW).

Yanun employs eight people, and Mallett has set up a First Nations development pathway model, recruiting Indigenous candidates, mentoring them and partnering them with suitable corporations.

โ€œI find solid candidates from community connections and coming out of school, and bring them in on an on-the-job arrangement,โ€ he says.

The candidates take a certificate in project management and get exposure to the projects and teams of large companies. โ€œThose trainees still employed by us, theyโ€™re trained and mentored, we give them all the pastoral care,โ€ Mallett says. โ€œThey sit in our office once or twice a week, but they also sit in the corporatesโ€™ offices.โ€

The plan is to grow the First Nations pool of professional resources in Australia, and Mallett says the system has worked well with BHP. Defence contractor BAE Systems is soon to take part. The corporations, he adds, have been extremely supportive of the model and the opportunity to provide Indigenous Australians with professional expertise.

Mallett gives credit for the success of his young company to his mentor, Jim Whalley, at the time the chief entrepreneur of South Australia, whom he met through then-University of Adelaide MBA director Damian Scanlon. โ€œHe [Whalley] was instrumental in guiding me through early years of Yanun,โ€ Mallett says. โ€œHe opened doors for me.โ€

Andrew Fitzgerald, The Gospel Distillery

Andrew Fitzgerald also has an engineering and project management background, but he wanted to move fields entirely. He worked in mining for 17 years, the last three or four in feasibility projects, until he decided to change gears and co-launch his own company, making and marketing rye whiskey.

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Andrew Fitzgerald started The Gospel Distillery then turned to an MBA program to acquire the requisite management skills. ย 

He and his business partner started distilling whiskey in Melbourneโ€™s Brunswick in 2015 and launched The Gospel Distillery in late 2019. โ€œSince then weโ€™ve grown quite rapidly, weโ€™re in nearly 3000 locations around Australia, exporting to seven countries,โ€ he says.

The Gospel Straight Rye Whiskey is made from 100 per cent Australian rye grown in the Murray Mallee region of South Australia, and it caters to a growing international band of rye whiskey enthusiasts.

Fitzgerald soon knew he needed specialist retailing knowledge to make the most of market opportunities. โ€œI thought I was wading into waters which were just completely foreign to me,โ€ he says. โ€œFrom looking at delivering a project in mining to launching a consumer product in international markets โ€“ theyโ€™re sort of worlds apart.โ€

An MBA course at Deakin University helped him understand more about a side of business he had not encountered in the mining sector. His company now makes and markets The Gospel and produces beverages for other companies under contract distilling arrangements.

โ€œDeakin allowed me to do a lot of assignments and work using my business as the base study, which was hugely important,โ€ he says. โ€œThings like a deep dive on a market analysis. Itโ€™s something you think about, but donโ€™t necessarily have to time to do: the MBA almost forced me to do that. I thought that was hugely rewarding.โ€

The courseโ€™s core subject on market strategy informed his business plans, he says: โ€œItโ€™s made me pull different levers within the businessโ€.

He now has another product in the works, with a launch scheduled for next year, and he expects to graduate from Deakin with his MBA by the end of this year.

โ€œOne of the things that came out of the MBA was about the penetration we can gain in having a singular focus,โ€ he says. โ€œItโ€™s about the deep and narrow entry into a market. Weโ€™ve grown from there and having a singular focus means we can almost be a voice of authority with that particular type of whiskey.โ€

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