What the Ivy Leagues Looks For in the Next Generation of Entrepreneurs


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Many students today are keen to chart their entrepreneurial paths even before setting foot on a college campus. In fact, according to an EY Ripples and JA Worldwide survey, approximately 53% of people born between 1997 and 2007 desire to start their own businesses. Colleges and universities also recognize this preference shift and offer an environment to help students take off their entrepreneurial ventures either during or after college.

Among these institutions, the Ivy Leagues emerge as a coveted option for students as a result of their attractive networking environments, access to resources and challenging courses. However, these educational powerhouses are extremely competitive, admitting only a fraction of the aspiring entrepreneurs. What sets apart those who make the cut? What characteristics of would-be entrepreneurs catch the eye of Ivy League admissions officers?

As a former Columbia University admissions member, I can confidently say that the answer lies in a distinct set of qualities that transcends academic excellence. Here are the three traits actively sought by Ivy League schools in future entrepreneurs.

Related: 5 Books That Paved My Path to Entrepreneurial Success

1. Ephemeral and genuine leadership

Being an entrepreneur requires you to be a leader. In fact, leadership is a criterion most colleges want to see in their applicants, and most students will weave it one way or the other into their college essays. However, colleges can recognize when leadership is genuine.

Getting accepted into an elite school shouldn’t be the sole driver behind your desire to be a leader because admissions officers will see through that. Instead, leadership should be a vital part of your identity and narrative. You must understand that true leadership requires dedication and consistency; it’s a demanding endeavor that may not even be suited to everyone.

Ivy League enthusiasts should start thinking early on about what they admire in leaders and how they can imbibe those traits through their unique actions. Embracing the role of a leader in everyday life — whether that is through community service, starting a club in school with a purpose or leading a research project — will make it easier to join the dots in your application.

Remember, true leadership is an arduous journey; it compels us to push creative boundaries, step outside our comfort zone and question ourselves objectively while embracing diverse perspectives and making tough calls. Think of real-life examples when you consistently demonstrate that and talk about them genuinely.

2. A commitment to others

Beyond the allure of substantial profits and lucrative careers, Ivy League education is profoundly shifting towards championing change. The spotlight is now on sustainability and positive impact, with these esteemed institutions anticipating a new breed of entrepreneurs driven not merely by financial gain but by a desire to effect meaningful change.

Ivy League schools now seek more than just promises of change through new businesses; they demand a demonstrated commitment that precedes the exceptional resources they can provide. It’s about showcasing your dedication to impact, substantiated by tangible evidence of your proactive efforts even before your Ivy League journey begins. Whether through internships at similar businesses, starting and leading initiatives or engaging in relevant extracurricular activities, applicants are expected to embody a true commitment to effecting real-world change.

So, the expectation is clear: demonstrate a track record of initiating change. While an Ivy League education can amplify your impact, it cannot instill the desire for change; that fire must already be within you. Ivy League applicants have long been promising to make real change in the world but are now holding our students accountable to these promises and asking how they’ve already begun to uphold them.

Related: 4 Traits Every Leadership Team Should Invest In

3. Diversity, equity and inclusion

Students hoping to join Ivy League business programs such as an MBA should be ready to lead in a new cultural environment with a genuine focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Despite facing some criticism, DEI is widely acknowledged as a crucial element of a thriving business, a principle strongly emphasized by esteemed MBA programs. Harvard Business School (HBS) educators assert that DEI is so integral to business success that they instruct students on “how to negotiate the difference” when organizations fall short in this regard. This commitment to DEI extends across all disciplines at HBS, including entrepreneurship, underscoring the importance of fostering more effective leadership through collaboration around diverse perspectives and experiences.

Similarly, Wharton is actively incorporating a focus on DEI and ESG, recognizing their significance across all business levels. Deputy Dean Nancy Rothbard proudly announced two new courses, DEI and ESG, at the undergrad and MBA levels in response to a student challenge to “do more.” The new MBA mantra centers on preparing leaders for creating diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations. Stanford has always had a vibrant MBA focused on entrepreneurship and is at the forefront of implementing the DEI, socially responsible business model, including having dedicated centers for Black and Hispanic businesses. Columbia Business School, through the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurship Center, is adopting a green approach, encouraging students to explore the “interface between business and society.” A new Climate Change and Business Program also reflects CBS’ growing humanistic value.

Suffice it to say, change is on the horizon, regardless of a small segment of society opposing the emphasis on DEI and socially responsible businesses in collegiate and corporate settings. The success of businesses and entrepreneurship hinges on aligning with the demographic makeup of their surroundings. Consequently, aspiring Ivy League MBA students must showcase their dedication to DEI, convey enthusiasm and articulate strategies for fostering inclusivity in their future enterprises.

Final thoughts

An Ivy League education can catapult your entrepreneurial journey to unprecedented heights. But gaining entry into these esteemed institutions demands more than mere lofty sentiments and “someday” assurances. Admissions officers expect to see authentic leadership and a demonstrated commitment to change, sustainability and DEI in the new generation of entrepreneurs. Ensure you genuinely embody these traits before stepping into the fiercely competitive league of the Ivies.



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