Ah, the excitement of the start of a new academic year. New friends, classes, projects, ideas and seemingly endless and redundant orientations. At the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, first-year MBAs have experienced much of the same. But instead of lame icebreakers and near ceaseless syllabi reviews, Ross students spent the week competing against each other in an annual startup competition.
This year, the Ross Leadership Initiative’s Impact Challenge put fledgling graduate business students into six teams of 75 each with an assignment of creating a business plan and proposal to generate positive social change in the lives of Detroit youth. The fourth installment of the program focused on helping Detroit children to become successful entrepreneurs. For the first time, the final product will result in an established venture, thanks to a $50,000 investment from General Motors.
Here’s how it works. Students start the program on Monday going through boot camp-style workshops designed to assist with the upcoming week. Then, they are divided into teams and given a business challenge. In what sounds like a cross between a reality TV show and a sociological study, professors watch as the students struggle to complete the assignment. As you can assume, 75 new business students in a room together with the pressure of tight deadlines is good entertainment. Afterwards, professors give feedback for organizational success.
Students spend Tuesday in their assigned neighborhoods in Detroit meeting with community members and business owners, working on service projects with youth and their parents and getting to know the lay of the land akin to a market research analysis. The neighborhoods and youth are selected with assistance from TechTown Detroit and the Detroit Parent Network. After a full day, students travel back to campus to synthesize the information and come up with a pitch.
On Wednesday, they do a trial presentation to community members and selected venture capitalists. After more feedback, they refine their show-and-tell pitches and come back Thursday for the real deal when the winning idea is selected as the business to create. Phew.
THIS YEAR’S WINNERS
This year’s winning idea: Mo’Tech, essentially a computer-recycling program for Detroit’s largest companies. Some big-time organizations go through computers nearly as quickly as undergrads have been going through ice buckets. The small- and mid-size companies can purchase the computers from the large organizations and can use, sell or donate them to selected high school youth.
“There were a number of good ideas pitched,” says Scott DeRue, associate dean of executive education. “But this one in particular is clearly a viable business. It takes a need that large corporations have and matches it with other businesses. Then computer literacy programs are offered for youth and other community members. And the youth will be able to take internships that are offered by the small and medium companies. The companies and startups are selling lightly used computers and getting talent to help.”
Class of 2016 student and member of the winning team, Giancarlo Moise says the main goal is to increase computer literacy for young people and the best way to accomplish that is to get an actual computer in their hands—not just sit for an hour in a class and then leave it at school.