Zuckerberg would have better understood the rules of corporate finance and capital markets and the importance of ethics and corporate governance. He might have learned the need to build long-term value and share his company’s financial upside with the public. He would surely have developed better social skills and not have exhibited seemingly awkward behavior during the IPO roadshow – behavior such as hiding out in a bathroom, forcing the audience to wait or taking the stage wearing a hoodie.
Silicon Valley frowns on MBAs. Some in the Valley even debate whether entrepreneurs need to complete undergraduate degrees. Angel investor Ron Conway went as far as to say that the best entrepreneurs to invest in are 17 or 18 years of age — in other words, kids fresh out of high school. This is the type of thinking that sows the seeds for disasters such as the Facebook IPO.
It is true that many people have achieved success without a formal education and that some degrees at elite colleges are not cost justified. It is also true that most university courses don’t bear direct relevance to what you do in the workplace. The value of college education, however, is in more than the curriculum. For the majority of the population, higher education provides the foundation for lifelong learning and success. It teaches you what you don’t know and where to look for knowledge when you need it; how to discover yourself and how to interact with other people; how to deal with rejection and failure. You develop an understanding of what is and what isn’t acceptable in society and in business.
Take the 101’s of any MBA program. The financial tracks teach the basics of how firms create value— topics such as the functions of modern capital markets, budgeting, discounted cash flow valuation, option pricing, and risk analysis. In accounting, you learn how to read financial statements and monitor corporate resource allocation. Marketing classes teach you how to create awareness of the business and value for customers — about distribution channels, communication, pricing, and understanding buyer behavior. Leadership classes teach the human side of the enterprise — how to manage and motivate subordinates and to build a corporate culture. And the most important topic: the legal, ethical, fiduciary and social responsibilities of business leaders.
Not all of these subjects are relevant when a company is founded, but they become increasingly important as it moves towards an IPO. No one is born with this knowledge and there is little time to learn all of these subjects when you’re struggling to grow a company and survive. I doubt that Zuckerberg ever had the chance.
As far as the fascination that Silicon Valley investors have with young kids, look at what happened to Airy Labs, a company founded by one of the most celebrated Thiel Foundation “20 under 20” award winners (this is the program that offers children $100,000 to drop out of school and start a business). The company received $1.5 million in funding from Google Ventures and other investors in August 2011. According to media reports and what I verified with former employees, the 19 year old CEO, Andrew Hsu, was a child genius. But he was so naïve and inexperienced that he had to rely on his parents to help him run the business. Employees complained about bad management practices, having to babysit Hsu’s younger brother, abusive work conditions, and a lack of ethics. The company laid off most of its 20-person staff in February.
The lesson is that brilliance and vision provide no substitute for education and maturity. You can learn and grow outside the classroom, but it takes more time and is often more painful because you learn by trial and error. Even the late Steve Jobs — a child genius — had to take some hard knocks and leave the company he co-founded before he learned enough to build a great company with lasting value.
The Washington Post Co.'s chairman and chief executive, Donald E. Graham, is a member of Facebook's board of directors.