Ross Startup Leader Leaves Legacy

Tom Kinnear will step down as director of the Zell Lurie Institute on August 31.

Tom Kinnear will step down as director of the Zell Lurie Institute on August 31.

Tom Kinnear, co-founder and driving force behind the University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Institute, will step down as executive director on August 31.  After 14 years at the helm of one of the nation’s oldest and most esteemed entrepreneurial institutions, Kinnear maintains a steadfast belief in the value of action-based learning in entrepreneurial education.

Some 5,000 students have passed through the Zell Lurie Institute’s robust portfolio of experience-oriented programs, which include the $5.5 million Wolverine Venture Fund (the first student-led venture fund) and Dare to Dream grants (a program that guides students from ideas to startups).  Last year The Princeton Review dubbed the Zell Lurie Institute the second best graduate program for entrepreneurship in the country.

Kinnear, who will be succeeded by Dr. Stewart Thornhill of Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ontario, says a curriculum that blends concepts with hands-on learning is key to the institute’s success. “We are the poster child for action-based learning.  We wanted students to be both conceptually and practically smart,” he says. “Some other schools cling to classroom lectures, but that is not the future.” To that end the school helps fund salaries for students who join startups for their summer internships and maintains three student-led investment funds, which manage more than $6.5 million.

During Kinnear’s watch, interest in MBAs and startups increased exponentially. However, the rush to snag business degrees and start companies brings increasing competition and new challenges. “You can’t have a loose idea,” Kinnear says.  “After the technology and mortgage bubbles and now the app bubble, we’ve seen how people can get sloppy, but we’ve always pushed our students to put together a serious business plan, not simply a general idea.”

He argues that the value of an MBA is multifold but not necessarily guaranteed. Schools that offer an “MBA lite” simply aren’t a worthwhile investment.  “I think picking a school where they challenge you and push you to a high level is what you should be looking for,” he says. “Most employers know well enough where you got your degree and what it’s worth, so my advice is always to go to the best school you can get into that fits the model of how you like to do things.” He cautions against B-schools that fund student startups with strings attached. “We’re here to help students form their businesses, learn to finance their businesses, and we’re not there to take a piece of them after they’re gone,” Kinnear says.

But even an MBA from a top school can’t always secure success. “The MBA gets you in the door, but in the end you must deliver on the job,” Kinnear says.  Nor can it create entrepreneurs from students without the drive to build their own businesses. “We can’t make an entrepreneur from a stone, but if you have the inclinations to start your own business, which seems to be about half the class, there are certain things where we can make your life a lot easier,” he says. Kinnear points out that only a handful of successful entrepreneurs have started from scratch – even Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin brought on business savvy Eric Schmidt as CEO before Page eventually replaced him in 2011.

Kinnear also has a theory on why MBAs are opting for the startup route in record numbers: “I think the mentality among a lot of MBAs is to have more control over their own lives and their own careers,” he says. “The best way to drive that forward from a student perspective is to have the ultimate control of your destiny, which is to create and start and be a part of the ownership of your own firm.”

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