September 9, 2019

Founders Academy launches an “alt-MBA” to train startup leaders

Don't fancy the $100,000+ fees for a classic MBA course? What about a free nine-month programme focused on running startups and scaleups?

Maija Palmer

3 min read

If you are thinking that the $100,000+ cost of a Harvard or Insead MBA is a bit steep, here’s an alternative to consider: a nine-month “alt-MBA” at Founders Academy , which is specifically geared towards preparing people to lead and manage startups.

It is completely free, and will even pay learners a small stipend during part of the course (paid for by startups sponsoring the academy such as energy unicorn Bulb and AI-driven medical platform Ada).

When you graduate from Harvard Business School you have read more than 1000 case studies. But every one of them is about the past.

“We wanted to completely rethink what and how people learn about running businesses,” Riya Pabari, co-founder and chief executive of Founder’s Academy, told Sifted. The project is also backed by Brent Hoberman, founder of Founders Factory.


Both Pabari and her co-founder Asha Haji felt that conventional businesses studies courses had failed to keep up to speed with the rapidly changing world of tech and startups.

“When you graduate from Harvard Business School you have read more than 1000 case studies. But every one of these cases is about the past. What we want to do is create a course that thinks about the future,” said Haji, who is an HBS graduate herself.

“I remember during the financial crisis, they couldn’t print the case studies fast enough, they were out of date almost as soon as they came out,” laughs Haji.

The idea is that a “tribe of learners” selected for the course will first have 3 months of tuition on the Founders Academy campus. They will then complete a six-month placement at a fast-growing London-based scale-up, spending four and a half days a week at the company getting hands on experience, with a half-day back on campus to share what they have learned.

Placement partners include Bulb, Ada, as well as fintech marketplace LendInvest and the public sector venture firm PUBLIC. Students will be paid a £1,800 a month stipend during their 6-month placement.

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London’s scale-up companies are often desperate to recruit talented managers, so paying to take part in the programme will give them access to a new pool of hires.

Meanwhile, Pabari and Haji are hoping that a no-fee management course will be a catalyst for more diversity in UK tech.

So far some 51% of applications are women, and in terms of ethnicity it is in line with London.

“So far some 51% of applications are women, and in terms of ethnicity it is in line with London: around 45% of applications are from ethnic minorities,” said Pabari. Compare that to, for example, Insead, the French business school, where just 33% of the 2018 MBA course intake was female.

Founders Academy has so far received some 70 applications, many of them from people working at companies such as Google, McKinsey and GlaxoSmithKline.

Pabari says it shows there is still strong appetite for people to switch away from conventional corporate jobs into the start-up and tech sector. It is a trend which organisations such as Escape the City and  On Purpose, a programme helping people into socially and environmentally-focused jobs, have also been tapping for some time.


The programme will start with a first “Tribe of 16”, in January 2020, with plans to eventually expand numbers to 20 per cohort.

Applications are still open via the website:

Disclaimer: Brent Hoberman is an angel investor in Sifted.