Do you need an Ivy degree to be a startup VP of marketing? Here are 4 data points to help you decide.

Does an Ivy League degree give you a better shot at cracking into the executive ranks at a startup?

English: Sage Hall exterior

Do you need an Ivy League degree to become a startup VP of marketing?(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people, including me, would probably tell you that fancy book learnings don’t matter much at a startup – you just need to have a ‘JFDI‘ mentality to be successful. If that’s the case, maybe you wouldn’t expect to see many people from top colleges or grad schools in the executive ranks of startups.

But what does the data actually tell us about the educational backgrounds of startup leaders?

To find out, I had my pals at virtual assistant shop FancyHands (affiliate link) help me out with a little research project…

My Approach

I picked a VC firm at random (KPCB) and a specific startup executive position (VP of Marketing) and asked FancyHands to find the undergraduate and graduate institutions that each startup VP of Marketing in the firm’s portfolio attended.

For the sake of simplicity I defined ‘top schools’ as any Ivy League school plus Stanford. And I just focused on the VP of Marketing position to keep the research tightly scoped.

FancyHands came back with a list of 22 startup Marketing VPs sampled psuedo randomly. Here’s the raw data:

Once the data came back from FancyHands I ran both the undergrad and grad schools through Wordle to generate some tag clouds. That gave me a visual representation of which schools might have been more or less represented in the sample.

Here’s the tag cloud that shows the undergraduate schools attended by the startup marketing VPs (Go Orangemen!):

Wordle: KPCB VPs of Marketing - Undergrad Schools
And here’s another tag cloud that shows the graduate schools attended by the startup marketing VPs (Cardinals, baby!):
Wordle: KPCB VPs of Marketing - Grad Schools

After that, I computed the percentages of startup VPs of marketing who:

  • Had graduated from a top college (undergraduate)
  • Had graduated from a top college (graduate)
  • Had graduated from a top college (graduate and/or undergraduate)

As you can see in the chart above 50% of the sampled startup marketing VPs who attended grad school attended either an Ivy League school or Stanford while only 19% attended one of those schools as an undergraduate.

The other thing I found really interesting (which isn’t shown on the graph) is that 73% of the sampled marketing VPs had some kind of graduate degree.

What does this all mean for an aspiring startup VP of Marketing?

  1. If you’re on the fence about going to graduate school in an effort to advance your startup marketing career it’s probably not a terrible idea. But don’t just assume your graduate degree path has to be towards something traditional, like an MBA. Startup marketing is often highly quantitative (e.g. optimizing user acquisition funnels and growth hacking) so a more technical degree could also be really useful in helping you reach your goal of leading marketing at a startup.
  2. If you want to attend graduate school to further your startup marketing career, select a school that you think will provide the best overall experience versus one that’s known for a strong marketing program. Certainly some graduate schools are known for having great marketing programs (e.g. Kellogg at Northwestern) but startup marketing is more than just marketing. When you’re planning your graduate studies, pick a place where you can develop a well-rounded curriculum that will help you better navigate the unstructured nature of a startup.
  3. Don’t sweat where you already went to school because you can’t change it. In the sample above 81% of the marketing VPs did not go to Ivy League schools or Stanford as undergraduates and 50% of the marketing VPs who attended grad school did not go to Ivy’s or Stanford, either. So don’t get psyched out if you didn’t attend one of these schools. Your educational background is only a limiting factor in your startup career if you perceive it that way.

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John Gannon
I have over 15 years of experience working in the trenches at successful startups, high growth companies, and VC firms. During that time, I've managed, interviewed, and coached hundreds of people -- and I've worked in almost every business functional role, including marketing, product management, and business development.
John Gannon
John Gannon

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