Friday, October 9th, 2015

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The ‘School of Hard Knocks’ Just as Critical as Business School

In the 1990s, people were coming out of colleges and business schools thinking of themselves as ordained leaders for new businesses. They were convinced that their education had given them all the necessary tools and the right to run a successful company. Their education would guarantee them financial success.

This was untrue. We learned that education is only one piece of the skill puzzle.

I was recently asked an interesting question when speaking before a business class at the University of Illinois. As an angel investor, which did I value more: an M.B.A. from the University of Illinois or Harvard? I said, "Neither." I wanted to look at a manager’s successes and failures rather than just his or her educational degree.

No one earns a pedigree at school that guarantees a success on the business roller coaster. What is the challenge for those business people who don’t even have the skill base of advanced education and business mentoring? What path can they follow to succeed?

One of the best parts for me of traveling the country and talking about entrepreneurship is the amazing people I meet. I have talked to many people who didn’t go to college or business school. Some have even come from broken homes and have not had personal or business role models. What drives these people is the same thing that drives many of us: a passion to see their own ideas succeed.

They have a natural curiosity of wanting more out of the business world than just going to a boring job every day. Their "I never had much and now I have nothing to lose" attitude makes them close their eyes and jump into a new venture. They are people who want to make a difference in the world.

This past summer, I read Po Bronson’s book, "What Should I Do with My Life?" In the book, there is a great chapter on a woman in Chicago named Nicole Heinrich. I contacted her to hear more about her amazing story.

She had received her bachelor’s from the University of Chicago in sociology but was unable to find a suitable position after graduation. She went to Japan on a whim and landed a job as an English-speaking hostess at a Japanese business club. Her job was to engage men at the club in conversation while they were negotiating their business.

"I was paid to look nice and talk to people," she said.

Heinrich came back to the U.S. and took a job placing ex-cons at companies. From there, she escaped to France to learn to speak French like her grandparents. She took a job in a bar and eventually ran a youth hostel. Years later, she wandered back to the U.S. and met her future partner at Elek-Tek. They opened a company that sold toner for printers. Bronson describes Heinrich in his book as the "toner queen."

Heinrich says what drove her all over the world was a search to run her own business. She felt stifled in an ordinary work environment and unable to express her own ideas. She wanted to create something. In fact, she now is establishing another company called Full Circle, which helps women realize their own business dreams.

In my book, I profile Stephanie Covall-Pinnix. She has that same drive. She has come a long way from her roots in Yakima, Wash. to launching her own business in Chicago. She left home early in life when her parents divorced. With only a high-school diploma, she took whatever work she could find.

She has worked at a Sizzler’s restaurant and has done surveys in malls for a market research company. For a short time when her life fell apart, she lived in a car. She was 21 when she became pregnant and went to live in the public housing projects of Yakima. When her baby daughter was born, Covall-Pinnix finally had an anchor of passion in her life that could propel her forward.

Covall-Pinnix found increasingly more responsibility at jobs for the State of Washington and JP Morgan. She found that she was good at training people. Before too long, Covall-Pinnix was no longer the secretary and was instead hiring her own assistant. Her active networking was bringing in leads for business.

It was during this time that her career in technology sales took off, which led to senior positions with RCN, Triton-Tek and SGS Net. It was after these years of selling and business development that Covall-Pinnix became determined to become an entrepreneur. She eventually started Evolution Partners, which creates customized programs for universities, corporations and not-for-profits.

People can accomplish great things without a formal education or specific business training. Many people need only follow their instincts and their deep-rooted passion to create something unique that they can call their own.

While college and business schools teach very important skills, they are not a guarantee or prerequisite for success. While academic theories and business simulations are fine, the real world often acts differently than we predict. Nothing can take the place of experience.

Until you have attended the "school of hard knocks," your education will be incomplete.

Barry Moltz is an award winning entrepreneur, author and national speaker. He co-founded Prairie Angels, a group of private investors committed to investing in and mentoring early stage companies and their entrepreneurs. His new book is titled "Bounce!" For more information, please visit Moltz.com.

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