Build Business School Skills Without Pursuing an MBA

Delece Smith-Barrow

Enrolling in an MBA program is one way to get a thorough education in marketing, entrepreneurship and similar topics, but business experts say people can take a number of alternative routes to learn about these subjects.

These less-traditional opportunities may become more appealing as business schools become increasingly competitive. For the 2013-2014 school year, 52 percent of full-time, two-year MBA programs in the U.S. reported an increase in applications for the first time since 2009, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

A crowded applicant pool, commitments at work and several other factors can sometimes make pursuing an MBA unrealistic.

"It's quite dangerous to leave your job and go into a full-time program," says Steve Silbiger, author of "The 10-Day MBA." Even the best schools, he says, don't have 100 percent placement rates.

Those interested in getting business skills without going to b-school can look to three resources, experts say.

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1. Mini-MBA programs: Several programs offer skills training to people who don't have the time, money or interest in a traditional MBA program, but want a structured learning environment.

The Barbri Financial Skills Institute offers a number of business classes that take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to complete. Most of the institute's clients are lawyers who need to sharpen their business knowledge.

Unlike a traditional MBA program, the institute focuses "much more on the practical elements of finance and marketing," says Reuben Advani, president of the institute and a graduate of the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania.

Sometimes learning from a skilled professional, instead of attending an accredited program, is all the training someone needs. Take the case of Jon Dale, a businessman who was able to hone his skills in entrepreneurship by following the work of Seth Godin, a marketer and author of a number of books.

After Godin announced online that he was offering a free alternative to an MBA program, Dale decided to apply. He made it to the unconventional interview round -- applicants had to interview each other for a spot -- and was later accepted into SAMBA.

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He and other participants spent six months in 2009 learning hands-on, practical skills for launching a business under Godin's guidance.

Dale, who did not go to college despite receiving a full scholarship, believes SAMBA was worth its while.

"The alternative MBA I got from Seth Godin is way more valuable than any MBA program I could have been through," says Dale, the CEO of a consulting firm. He was doing social media strategy for various companies before SAMBA and continued doing it -- albeit with even more success -- after the experience.

Since the program, he no longer has to seek clients. Clients come to him. "Everything's come by referral," he says, emphasizing how much his network expanded after people learned of his work with Godin.

2. Books and websites: People can often learn much of what is needed to be a successful business person by reading the right book or website, says Dale, a cofounder of the website, which offers deals from different merchants. Dale recommends people start with "The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business" by Josh Kaufman.

The challenge for many people is not getting the book, or similar publications, but taking the time to actually read and study what's in them, he says.

"The knowledge isn't the tough part," he says. "The tough part is actually doing the work."

Reading financial websites can also help people become better equipped to handle the challenges that come from the business world, experts say. and The Motley Fool are Advani's top recommendations. He considers them a good starting point or supplement to other educational offerings.

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3. Online courses: In September, the University of Pennsylvania launched The Wharton Foundation Series, four business classes taught as massive open online courses and offered through the online education company Coursera. Wharton, which is a founding partner of Coursera, began offering MOOCs last year.

One class, for instance, had more than 100,000 enrolled, says Karl Ulrich, vice dean of innovation at Wharton.

The school's new series offers some of what students learn during their first semester of the full-time, in-person program, he says.

The introductory classes cover corporate finance, financial accounting, marketing and operations management. "They're in general about 40 percent of what you might get in an introductory course on campus," he says. "They're the language of business, basically."

University of Pennsylvania is one of many schools, such as University of Chicago, Northwestern University and University of Virginia, that offer classes in business and other subjects through MOOCs.

Experts say MOOCs can be a great way to learn business skills without getting an MBA.

"That's a good option for someone trying to gain a broad overview of a particular topic," says Advani.

Students don't typically earn grades in MOOCs or pay fees. Anyone around the world with Internet access can sign up.

"The nice thing about the MOOCs is they're very easy to try," says Ulrich. "I would recommend that people just sign up."

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