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Students at elite business schools bypass Wall Street for blockchain

  • Students from elite business schools are increasingly attracted to job opportunities in blockchain.
  • Stanford will teach its first comprehensive class on blockchain and cryptocurrencies in spring 2018.
  • Blockchain was the second fastest-growing skill in the third quarter out of more than 5,000 skills tracked by the online freelancing site Upwork.

A growing number of students at America's elite business schools say they plan to pivot away from conventional jobs in finance for the lure of blockchain, the underpinning of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Robbie Mitchnick is one of those students.

"We've got a lot of people who came from traditional finance backgrounds that are forgoing the chance to go back into that world to get involved in blockchain," Mitchnick, a MBA candidate at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, told CNBC.

Following graduation next spring, Mitchnick, who previously interned at the payments network Ripple, hopes to find work making cryptocurrencies more accessible to a mainstream audience.

Blockchain is a global online database that allows millions of users to exchange cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin and litecoin, securely and anonymously. Wall Street has grown enamored with the technology even as some prominent bankers downplay the staying power of bitcoin, the price of which as soared to over $11,000 this year.

Students in the graduate business programs at Harvard, Stanford and University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School have pressed for more on-campus opportunities to learn about blockchain, and schools are responding.

Last summer, a group of Stanford MBA students including Mitchnick, wrote a letter to Yossi Feinberg, the senior associate dean for academic affairs, arguing that blockchain is of fundamental importance to business and the economy and listing reasons a course should be developed for business school students.

This spring, Stanford's first comprehensive class on blockchain and cryptocurrencies will be taught by Kathryn Haun, a former federal prosecutor for the Justice Department, where she often focused on digital currencies and financial fraud.

A similar story is playing out at Harvard Business School, where current students Sahil Dewan and Edith Shi recognized that there wasn't a central group or place for students interested in blockchain and cryptocurrencies to unite so they co-founded the Blockchain, Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Club.

"We've seen a huge increase in interest in blockchain and bitcoin here at HBS," said Shi, an MBA candidate who is the club's co-president. "Normally we get around 30 people signing up for information about the club. This year we had nearly 800."

Dewan is seeking start-up opportunities in this space post-graduation, while Shi said she may at "some point" join the world of blockchain.

The Wharton School's Blockchain Club, co-founded by Jitin Jain, currently has around 300 members, hosts regular meet-ups and invites guest speakers. "A lot of us are looking for longer term opportunities in this space after business school," said Jain, who is also spearheading efforts to host a blockchain conference next year on campus.

Wharton is looking to offer a broader blockchain course for students some time in 2018.

And while some students are proactively shifting away from traditional finance roles to explore blockchain, many are trying to find a way to blend the two.

"Technology and finance are not mutually exclusive," said John Pennington, a Wharton MBA candidate who previously worked at a global investment bank. "Rather, I see a tremendous benefit to those in traditional financial services who embrace the role of technologies like blockchain as a means of improving their businesses."

Students will be putting their blockchain interests to the test in early January when recruiting season at business schools kick off. Current data from the online freelancing job site Upwork shows that blockchain was the second fastest-growing skill in the third quarter out of more than 5,000 skills on the platform. Upwork reported a 2,652 percent jump in freelancer billings for blockchain compared to the same time last year.

As interest grows, faculty and staff at the top business schools are under pressure to allocate more time and resources to this new area of technology. Kevin Werbach, associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton, is researching regulation of cryptocurrencies.

"A lot of people think tech overcomes law which is a gross oversimplification. We need to figure out control and regulation," Werbach told CNBC.

Mitch Weiss, a Harvard Business School professor, is integrating blockchain in his entrepreneurship class this semester. "We take our task to educate leaders who will make a difference in the world and I think it is safe to say that blockchain leadership is going to be a big part of that."

-- CNBC producer Fahiemah Al-Ali contributed to this report.