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Are Michigan entrepreneurs the Leaders and Best?

January 12, 2017

Igniting Entrepreneurship on Michigan’s Campus

Ilan Siegel

Ilan Siegel is a junior studying public policy at the Ford School with a focus on religion’s influence on world politics. He is currently President of MPowered and is the founder of IgniteIt and PowerCast—MPowered’s first ever Podcast. His interests include power lifting, cooking and reading.


The University of Michigan has invested countless hours and millions of dollars to build the number three ranked entrepreneurial program in the country. Yet our ability to educate successful entrepreneurs is still in infancy stages. Why?


The term entrepreneurship is fluid: it changes daily and has 101 different definitions depending on who you ask and what day of the week it is. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what entrepreneurship is, and because of this, anyone can claim


to be an entrepreneur. Tom Frank, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, recently told me that his biggest issue with entrepreneurship education across the country is that faculty will teach “entrepreneurship” when they have no qualifications or experience to do so. Would we allow a medical professor to teach neurosurgery if he or she had never operated on a brain before? Can we trust a political science professor to explain the intricacies of polling data without experience or without a PhD in political science?


One learns the qualities of entrepreneurship through experience. Failure, success and hours and hours of focus on a singular vision shape true entrepreneurs. As President of MPowered, I personally define entrepreneurship as the ability to create something out of nothing. A successful entrepreneur begins with a seed of an idea and navigates through a tumultuous and ever-changing ecosystem to develop that idea into a reality. Along the way, she must impassion her colleagues, friends and potential investors to truly believe in her idea and the underlying principles that drive her to success.


Creating a successful company takes years of work and requires sacrifices in almost every sector of one’s life. 100-hour work weeks are the norm. Yet, students expect to be able to create a company while also balancing school, social lives and other student organizations. On top of that, every single student at the University of Michigan is still developing his or her social skills, time management skills and learning how to manage personal finances. Is it feasible to add developing networking skills and how to manage company finances?


It is extremely difficult to incentivize qualified entrepreneurs to leave the bubble that is Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley or Silicon Beach to come to Ann Arbor to teach entrepreneurial skills. Many times this issue is exacerbated by the fact that credibly defining entrepreneurship with the same level of substance as a field like neuroscience or political science is extremely challenging. It is a ‘Catch 22’. Recruiting top entrepreneurs is challenging because many do not know what skills they can teach due to the lack of a clear definition. But at the same time, this definition cannot be developed because there are not enough qualified individuals teaching entrepreneurship.


Moreover, Michigan’s entrepreneurial community is siloed. Given the diverse resources, there should be more more collaboration between schools and entrepreneurial programs. With separate communication channels, many divided initiatives and independent audiences, many organizations optimize for their success independently, as opposed to with the larger community.


Herein lies the issue. Not one individual piece, but a host of points leads to a constant trial and error development of how to teach entrepreneurship.


What can be done? First, the different schools at the University of Michigan must continue to incentivize top entrepreneurs from San Francisco, New York and Chicago to teach entrepreneurship here. This includes providing these entrepreneurs faculty status, and unique incentive structures based on companies they advise and invest in.


Additionally, we must lose the stigma that a student studying entrepreneurship is taking the ‘easy path’ or is receiving a ‘second class’ degree. Finally, the future of entrepreneurship will continue to hinge on the success of student organizations. They teach students entrepreneurial skills with a safety net that allows them to fail. Faculty must continue to fuel the creation of new entrepreneurial organizations and assist them in creating successful programs for the long-term success of entrepreneurship on campus.


We are the number three entrepreneurial school in the country. That is incredible. But in the spirit of the University of Michigan and entrepreneurship, we should continue to strive to be the best in the country at fueling innovation on campus and in our students.

Innovate for the Sake of our Species

Jeff Sorensen

Jeff Sorensen founded optiMize as a student and is now Director for Social Innovation at the University of Michigan College of LSA. Follow him on Facebook @jpsorens


For the sake of our future, I hope Michigan becomes a genuine leader in entrepreneurship. I believe this requires three things: recognizing the urgency of the human situation, illuminating possibilities for a future worth living in and taking collaborative action toward that future.


The urgency is clear. For the first time in the modern history, we face extinction level threats to our species. Climate change is wrecking our planet at an accelerating rate. Nuclear weapons could do the job even quicker. Racism will likely outlast capitalism, and artificial superintelligence presents tremendous uncertainty.


Unsettling questions abound. What will humans do if machines take 80 percent of human jobs? What if our environment is strained to the breaking point, refugees converge on cities, water is scarce and billions suffer from inequality? Can we develop the intellectual and moral capacity to control our worst impulses?


These are the stakes. Utopia is still possible, but we’re accelerating toward a dystopian cliff. The University of Michigan has the potential to help us change course. Unlike a private corporation, we do not aim to maximize financial profit for a small group of shareholders. Instead, we exist to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future. Will we live up to our mission?


We can begin by illuminating possibilities. Might a utopian future include “urban agrihoods” where everyone eats from the local urban farm? How about educational technologies that empower girls to thrive? Maybe smart resource distribution so excess in one location is transferred to meet a need elsewhere – whether that’s food or medical supplies or even energy?


Everything I mentioned is already being achieved by optiMize students. They’ve created visions and they’re mobilizing toward them. They’re creating startups, nonprofits and movements, all while learning skills you cannot get in a classroom.


These students are outliers – for now. If we want to make innovation the norm, we might ask what optiMizers do differently. They spend less time working passively and more time taking action. Classroom learning is not sufficient for the world we live in, and entrepreneurial endeavors offer an ideal supplement. They are self-directed, action-based and collaborative. They’re ambiguous and open-ended. And they map to the reality of an increasingly complex world.


In 2012, I co-founded optiMize because I believe students can change the world. We can unleash that potential by creating supportive environments for students to take action. So far we’ve incubated 300 student-led projects and about 1200 students in total. Our principles are simple. Students work in teams on self-chosen projects with real-world ramifications. Our learning experiences are flexible and aim to inspire. Students learn by doing, and we cultivate a community for mentorship and mutual support. And we have a lot of fun doing it!


If Michigan wants to innovate toward a future worth living in, perhaps our students, faculty, and alumni could follow the example of the optiMizers. Instead of competing against each other, we can work together. Instead of hoarding resources, we can share and mobilize. Instead of “professing,” we can engage. Instead of worrying about choosing the right concentration, we can focus on the pressing challenges in the world around us. And instead of merely talking about those challenges, we can work collaboratively and compassionately toward a just and sustainable future.


Sound interesting? Here’s what you can do. Think of something that frustrates you. Learn about it and create a vision of a better alternative. Take action toward that alternative, adapt and take more action. Find a place to work alongside others who support you. Practice love and compassion. And do everything you can to make our campus more accessible and inclusive – we need every perspective in this collaboration. These types of changes could radically alter the landscape of higher education and unleash an unprecedented torrent of creative action.


If you’re a student, join us at optiMize. If you’re an alum, support the students however you can. If you’re on faculty, break out of your traditional circles and collaborate with researchers from other disciplines. Make our research a leading force for change.

Choosing to act requires courage, but it’s a lot more fun than the soul-crushing status quo. I’d been teetering on the edge of action for years, and my life changed forever on the day I asked myself one question. Try asking yourself right now:

Why not me?

Passion v. Paycheck

Anushree Vora and Vikram Rajagopalan

Anushree Vora and Vikram Rajagopalan are directors at SHIFT Creator Space. Anushree previously directed Startup Weekend Ann Arbor and MTank with MPowered. She has spent the last few summers in the Bay Area working at high-growth tech startups. Vikram is also a two-time director at MHacks, and previously worked at Delta on the Innovation Team and in the Bay Area at OnboardIQ (YC S’15).


Today at Michigan, we follow largely pre-professional paths that take us into well-established careers in finance, business, software engineering, medicine and so on. Many students apply to the Ross School of Business not knowing what they want to do specifically, but hoping that the school will provide job security. Freshmen are seduced by the business school’s promise of a higher average GPA than other colleges (for those looking to go to grad school, this is great news), connections, networking and top-notch recruiting. But when are we asking students what they love? What subject can they rant about for hours because they know it fully and in so much depth?


It’s not just Ross – we push students in Engineering, LSA, the School of Information, etc. down career paths too soon for the sake of securing a safe future. Risk-aversion is embedded into every layer of this University, and in order to be the “leaders and best” in entrepreneurship, we need to unlock students’ true passions. We believe that students should be pushed to consider their individuality when in the classroom. Figuring out what students care about will lead to less food delivery and see-when-your-friends-are-free startups and create more projects that have meaningful impacts on campus and beyond. A campus-wide push for passion over paycheck will yield a culture where students won’t just start companies for the sake of starting companies, which is the current state of the Michigan student startup scene.


The first step is to stop idealizing entrepreneurship and glorifying the wealthy tech elites. We count Larry Page, Tony Fadell, Dick Costolo and Dan Gilbert as textbook Michigan entrepreneurs, but in painting these highly successful individuals as ideal entrepreneurs, we risk focusing too much on their success, and not enough on their journey. For example, a recent MPowered Facebook post for Judy Faulkner, founder of Epic Systems, repeatedly mentions her $2.2 billion net worth, and invites students to visit her talk to “learn more about how can [sic] achieve a net worth of 2.2 million” By using such high-profile entrepreneurs and making the objective to make off as a billionaire, entrepreneurship seems out of reach and about the money, and not about the problems founders aim to solve.


Our programs need to put more of a push on self-discovery and self-awareness. Many students enrolled in the entrepreneurship minor will take five or six classes in the department. These classes will largely be designed around starting a project with a team, working with the Business Model Canvas and pitching the startup to local venture capitalists who are friends with the professor. Then, the department asks itself, why aren’t more of these projects surviving after the class ends? Perhaps it is because students have never gotten a chance to connect with a problem that resonates with them and have been asked to build four distinctly different companies through the minor. There was no early push to help students in the program find ideas that made them want to put their all into their classwork. We need more ideation workshops. More introspection. And much less pitching practice and deck-building.


We direct SHIFT Creator Space, a house on campus that emphasizes the importance of working on projects students care about. Our program is extremely tight-knit and mentorship-driven, and our members tend to go on to build their own startups or work at some of the best tech companies in the world. While SHIFT is small, only taking in about 40-50 students a year, we try to make our largest priority focusing on identifying problems creators can fall in love with. We are not an incubator: you don’t have to start up or get out. We are a house of passionate creators that encourage each other to look around the corner when our projects seem to hit dead ends. These passion projects often turn into companies, but there is incredible humility in focusing on what you’re building and what excites you before focusing on what it could turn into.


Ultimately, being the “leaders and best” in entrepreneurship is about building products that matter – and the only way to do that is by getting students to focus on what they want to build. If we can build more spaces like SHIFT within the University, it is possible to build a more organic and authentic environment in which entrepreneurs can thrive. The key is to focus less on fortune and fame, and find problems students care deeply about.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Go Blue

Varsha Tirukonda

Varsha Tirukonda is a senior studying Computer Science Engineering and a former co-director of MHacks and Startup Career Fair.


The University of Michigan is home to many natural leaders, but helping them to grow into capable entrepreneurs is no easy task. It doesn’t happen overnight and, in most cases, it doesn’t even happen in four years. Still, the glorified idea of becoming a college dropout-turned-startup founder falsely leads students to believe that taking huge risks and diving into the deep end is the best way to succeed. While many dream of being the next Mark Zuckerberg, it’s important to keep in mind that most successful entrepreneurs see success much more gradually. And that’s completely normal. Building a company will be the hardest and most demanding task that any entrepreneur chooses to face, regardless of age or experience. When that decision is made by a college student, the changes can be overwhelming. Fortunately, Michigan can play a key role in helping students develop the skills that make great entrepreneurs while in school.


In my experience, these skills are best developed in a controlled and low-risk environment. As a director for MHacks, a 36-hour hackathon organized by Michigan students, my goal is to give students a comfortable and empowering creator space. MHacks brings over one thousand students to campus twice a year to build creative software and hardware projects with the latest technology. Participants (“hackers”) spend 36 hours working in teams of 1-4 people to build or code projects (“hacks”) they’re excited about. There are workshops, mentors, and buckets—yes, buckets—of coffee to guide you along the way. You bring your ideas, and we give you everything you need to make them come to life.


At its heart, MHacks is an opportunity to flex your entrepreneurial muscles—to stop just thinking about an idea and actually start building it. Hackers experience all the setbacks, roadblocks, and breakthroughs that come with true innovation. While prizes and the potential for employment certainly don’t drive students away, what really gets 1500 students to give up their weekends is a desire to meet like-minded people and learn new skills. MHacks, and hacking in general, embodies the education-first ethos missing from pop culture entrepreneurship. This philosophy is essential to entrepreneurial success at the collegiate level. The university should encourage students to take advantage of the many resources it has to offer, allowing students to take risks and even fail in a safe environment. Failure is often an inevitable part of entrepreneurship, so it’s important that we teach students to embrace their mistakes and use them as a learning opportunity.


Events like MHacks and student orgs like optiMize provide the tools and experiences students need to be successful founders when they—and their ideas—are ready. They also get students more involved in the Ann Arbor/Detroit entrepreneurial ecosystem. This past October, MHacks 8 went back to Detroit for the first time since MHacks III to showcase the renewed entrepreneurial spirit of the city. We hoped that this energy alongside Detroit’s deep-rooted history as the automotive industry capital would inspire students with their hacks. We saw some great results.


A record number of teams used this energy to create social good hacks. But more importantly, we saw hackers making connections with our Detroit partners and recognizing the potential of the city itself. These relationships are critical to the continued growth of entrepreneurship on campus. With an impressive alumni base, which includes the likes of Larry Page and Dick Costolo, alongside being ranked third for entrepreneurship, it’s obvious that Michigan is doing something right. But graduates with a vested interest in the local community are the ones that will return to Ann Arbor and choose to start their business here rather than in the Bay Area. They’re the key to creating a strong support system and lasting mentorship network for incoming classes of budding entrepreneurs.


If raw talent and great ideas were all it took to be an entrepreneur, Michigan would have the leaders and best in spades. In truth, cultivating the leaders and best in entrepreneurship will takes time, resources and above all, faith. More than money or connections, entrepreneurs need people who believe in them and their ideas. Michigan can create the next generation of great entrepreneurs by being deliberate about investing in their long-term success.

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