How to work on a startup while in business school
As I approach graduation, all my friends are talking about their job offers with six-figure salaries in cool cities across the U.S. Then there’s me: who chose to start an apparel company amidst a pandemic. Some people may call it brave to start your own company; some people may call it dumb to go to one of the best business schools and pursue a risky path; but for me, I’m having the time of my life.
I started IXORA Apparel officially in March 2020 – right when the pandemic was starting. It stemmed from a problem that I had since I was in investment banking. I desperately sought quality workwear that didn’t make me feel and look old and frumpy. In January 2019, I surveyed women about their clothing and discovered that most of them had problems with fit. As a chronic petite-yet-not-petite woman, I constantly took things to the tailor so I understood this problem well. Why can’t clothes be made for us? Why can’t made-to-measure be easier – and in styles that women actually want to wear? Thus, IXORA Apparel was born. My vision is to make a product tailored just-for-her in styles that would make her feel confident in whatever the setting.
In school, the HBS student life is crazy busy. I was on campus in the Fall of 2019. We constantly had info sessions for various companies, meetings for clubs, mixers for our section (cohort) events, we had to read dozens of cases to participate in class, tons of one-on-one coffee chats or dinners to meet new people… It’s a common thing for students to have their calendars not only fully-booked but double- or triple-booked for some things. So adding building a company to the mix is not easy.
What are my tips for working on a startup while being a student?
Make the time
As I listed above, student life – at any MBA program – is incredibly hectic. You commonly can only choose two of the four: great social life, amazing job, good grades, or sleep. I chose amazing job (or at least the chance for an amazing job with my start-up) and sleep. At school, you have so much going on and you want to meet as many of your peers as possible. However, you have to force yourself to re-prioritize. To help with this, I would literally block out my calendar for 2 hours per day to work on my start-up. It’s tough, but you have to say no to happy hours and dinners. There will definitely be FOMO, but if this is a path you really want, you’ll enjoy it at the end of the day.
Same with your coursework: my entire life I’ve been a straight A student. I would never skip homework or any required reading. At HBS, that has completely flipped. In order to prioritize my startup and getting sleep, I basically stopped doing all of the work. I chose to read cases when I had time and when I did – I heavily skimmed. If I didn’t have time, then I would choose sleep. The most important thing for you to do is to make the time on what you prioritize the most.
Embrace being just a student
My rationale for working on my startup while in business school is because if I’m not making any money, might as well try to do something I’m passionate about. I truly believe that being an MBA student is the best time to work on a startup. Why? To say just that – hi, my name is Farah. I’m just a student.
There’s much less risk when you’re “just” a student. Being a student opens up so many doors. When I was doing research with tailors and other made-to-measure competitors, all I had to say was that I’m a student and doing research and everyone was willing to chat. People don’t see you too much as a threat or as a hassle when they think you’re a student. The same holds true for not only your research, but also when you are looking for business partners, advisors, and even investors. More people are interested in helping out a student and “giving back.” You have two years to pull the student card. After that, you’re just like every other professional with a graduate degree, so use the student card.
Utilize all your school’s resources
At school, there are incredible resources for entrepreneurship as each school hopes to foster the next unicorn. At HBS, they’re hoping your startup will be the next Peloton, Rent the Runway, Birchbox and more. I’ve been lucky where HBS is bursting at the seams with opportunities. I’ve participated in the Harvard Venture Incubation Program at their Innovation Lab; I’m also part of the Rock Accelerator Program. I’ve participated in classes that allowed me to focus on my startup such as Product Management 101/102 and Field X/Y. In totality, I’ve received a decent amount of grant money for my startup all without entering a pitch competition.
However, the schools’ programs aren’t the only resource. The professors and alumni are one of the best resources. The professors at your school are incredibly brilliant with lots of great research and some even have incredible professional experience. I’ve used office hours on several occasions to toss around ideas – everything from marketing to supply chain to strategy. My operations professor was the one who actually made the intro to the factory I’m using today! When you’re doing your research about schools, while resources and programs are great, don’t forget about the people who can serve as great mentors!
Don’t compare yourself
While you’re going through an MBA program, it is tough to think about everyone else with their job security. Your friends may be getting incredible jobs while you may not be making any money – at least that’s what I’m thinking about. However, I’ve gotten so much better at not playing the compare game. Each of us are on a different path. More likely than not, if you’re working on a startup during business school, it’s because you’re passionate about it. Many people at business school are just trying to now discover their passions. Consider yourself lucky in that regard if you’ve already discovered yours.
Comparing yourself is tiring – especially since most likely your friends are going to be incredibly proud and impressed. There are many times I think I’m not doing that well and I’m not doing enough. However, to the outside eye, they don’t see that. Your friends are incredibly proud of what you’ve accomplished. Don’t mean to toot my own horn, but starting your own company is such an incredible feat and requires an incredible amount of work. You should be proud of what you’re doing. Even though you don’t have a literal job offer, you created a company – and that’s as incredible if not more.
Lastly, business school is supposed to be fun – and so should working on your startup. As stressful as it is, you have to be working on a startup that you can imagine working on for the next ten years. If you’re not having fun now, then the ten-year horizon will certainly be painful. I know that day-to-day I’m stressed. However, I’m loving what I do overall. It requires constant check-ins with yourself – “Do you like what you’re doing?” “Are you having fun” “What do you need to change to be happy?” You only have two years of your business school program. If you’re miserable while working on your startup, then my advice? Don’t do it.
These are just a few of my tips about working on a startup while going to business school. It’s a hard path to manage it all – but it’s certainly a rewarding one.
Join us in conversation with Farah on April 6 to learn more about her MBA entrepreneur journey and those of two other MBAs with side hustles: The MBA & Side Hustle Life. And stay tuned on our Instagram (@MBA.chic) for an exciting chance to experience IXORA Apparel.
Photos furnished by Farah Azmi and IXORA Apparel
About the author
Farah Azmi is a Harvard Business School student in the 2nd year of her MBA program. Farah spent her undergrad at University of Utah, majoring in finance. She worked at Barclays in investment banking and after at Tommy Hilfiger in corporate strategy. At HBS, Farah is a member of the Women’s Student Association, Retail Luxury Goods Club, Entrepreneurship Club, Rock Accelerator, and the iLab’s Venture Incubation Program. Farah attended HBS for their entrepreneurship programs at the Rock Center and at the Innovation Lab where she is working on her apparel brand, IXORA Apparel.