Miliyun Chiu, Co-founder of xixilab, talks to Jumpstart about the importance of advanced degrees for an entrepreneur.
Becoming an entrepreneur requires strengths across the board, from technical skills to soft skills. A business idea is required, but so are determination, a healthy risk appetite, and unshakeable belief in your idea. One thing that’s hotly debated in entrepreneur circles, however, is whether founders need higher qualifications to succeed.
There are numerous stories of people who have succeeded without a college degree. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg top the list of people who dropped out of college and went on to build billion dollar companies.
“But we are not all Facebook,” warns Miliyun Chiu, the Co-founder of xixilab, a teeth straightening and whitening startup operating in Greater China. She has a Master’s degree in Health Economics, and a PhD in Molecular Medicine. “If you think about what [Zuckerberg] is selling, it’s about that social connection among his peers. It’s not something that we learn from a degree,” she says.
Whether you should pursue an advanced degree or not, therefore, depends on the industry you want to build your company in. For technology intensive sectors like the medical industry, advanced education provides the skill set and technical know-how required to build the product, which would make up the foundation of the company.
Think of yourself as a commodity—the rarer you are, the higher your value. Your knowledge and skillset determines your value and differentiates you from others. However, having a Master’s degree that is generic does little to enhance your value.
“Having a PhD would for sure draw attention and you would [include] it in the Founder’s page. We even say that we’ve got someone in the founding team who’s got a PhD in medical science. I think that proves to people that we are knowledgable,” explains Chiu.
Chiu also emphasizes the need to correctly evaluate the value of a program you wish to pursue before you commit yourself to it. For example, she herself is wary of MBA holders.
“Having interviewed MBA candidates and having met a lot of them, I think that’s one [degree] I would ask people to think clearly about if you really need it, and then where you go to get it. Because, not all MBAs are equal,” she says.
“That’s why, instead of doing an MBA, I decided to do a Master’s in Health Economics. That’s a lot more focused toward my field; it’s something I’m interested in. I was attracted to do it just because it’s such a new and fast-developing field. And again, it was rare, because only very few universities were offering it,” Chiu adds.
Advanced degrees can provide credentials that can help gain the trust of not just investors, but customers and employees as well, Chiu suggests. In her experience talking to investors, having an advanced degree does not guarantee investment or success, but it gets you through the door quicker since investors are sure of your expertise.
“I don’t have to spend an hour convincing you that I know my stuff. It took like 3 years to get [my PhD], but it saved me five minutes when I talked to investors,” she says.
However, Chiu concedes that educational background is just one of the things that investors look for in founders.
“They, for sure, care most about the business –what you’re building, and what values you are giving. That, I think, is the biggest deciding factor,” says Chiu. “And then afterwards, they want to know, are you capable of delivering?”
Moreover, having advanced degrees may be more important for women entrepreneurs than men, Chiu says.
“We tend to build businesses at the age where people will also think about whether [a woman] is going to run off and have a family. So [investors] will score you on this in their head. They’ll think, is this person worth investing in?” she says. To some of the investors Chiu has spoken to, being a woman at her age is still seen as a minus.
“To balance that, get your skill up, get your knowledge up. I think, as a woman, having that piece of paper is probably more important if you want to build a business,” she adds.
On the other hand, the prospect of becoming your own boss or the distant possibility of financial success may seem alluring enough to not pursue advanced degrees, or to drop out of college. World-renowned investor and PayPal Co-founder Peter Thiel even offers a fellowship that entices aspiring entrepreneurs to drop out of college and pursue their dreams.
“I can see there’s this trend where everyone wants to apply to Stanford so they can drop out, so that they can say that they have dropped out, which to me, is really stupid,” says Chiu.
“As a woman, if you want to get into tech and go far, and have the ability to get into a grad school, I’d say ‘Do it! Don’t give it up! You know how much it represents! Not just for building a company – just representing a gender. We are doing this because we can!’” she exclaims.
Despite the benefits, education can be expensive and student debt can often deter people from pursuing higher degrees. According to Chiu, however, being an entrepreneur entails much more intense financial pressure than student debt.
“If a person can’t even handle student debt, I doubt they can handle being an entrepreneur,” she says.
If you plan to become an entrepreneur, it is important to evaluate your options and determine how best to spend your time. Although it is not necessary to have an advanced degree, it may be worth pursuing if your industry is technology intensive and requires a specialized skillset. Besides, whether you want to build a business or not, it is always important to advance your knowledge level, and enrolling in an advanced level program is the easiest way to do it.
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