A lot can happen in 20 years. Especially nowadays when technological advances and innovations develop at mindboggling and sometimes frustrating rates (just cool it, Apple). At the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, 20 years has given the school time to launch and build one of the best entrepreneurship programs in the world for young, student entrepreneurs.
“Two decades ago there was virtually nothing,” concedes Stewart Thornhill, the executive director of Michigan Ross’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies. “When you look at the landscape of entrepreneurship education, in the late ’90s, it was pretty barren.”
This past fall, the Zell Lurie Institute, which was established in 1999 with a $10 million gift from the Zell and Lurie families, celebrated 20 years on campus at Michigan. But it wasn’t until 2015 when the Institute received a $60 million gift that the programming really took off. Now, the Institute oversees multiple funds for student and recent alumni entrepreneurs like the Zell Early Stage Fund and Zell Founders Fund and the Zell Entrepreneurs Program, which awards $10,000 as well as mentorship, support, and coworking space to student entrepreneurs.
“As a whole, we’ve gotten much better at combining resources and identifying high-potential students and shepherding them through so that they get full-advantage of every program that’s available to them,” adds Thornhill, who has been at the Zell Lurie Institute since 2013.
BUILDING WITH THE UNIVERSITY AND GREATER COMMUNITY
Like many other schools, the Ross School of Business has benefitted in the past five or so years by pooling resources with the greater university, reaching across schools and programs, as well as working with the local community. In places like Ann Arbor and other Midwestern outposts that lack the entrepreneurial ecosystems of New York City, San Francisco or Boston, it takes an “all hands on deck” approach to create and grow powerful entrepreneurial infrastructure.
One example at Michigan is the Desai Accelerator. Launched in 2013, the Accelerator is a joint initiative between the Zell Lurie Institute, the College of Engineering, and the city of Ann Arbor. Its sole purpose is to foster tech startup growth in the Ann Arbor region by offering entrepreneurs mentorship, coworking space, and funding to promising tech companies.
“Because we aren’t on a coast and don’t have the scope and scale of the investor community and broader ecosystem you get at a Boston or in a San Francisco, we had to really invest in creating a version of that here,” Thornhill says.
Ann Arbor SPARK is another initiative in which students and alums can get involved. The initiative’s sole purpose is to boost southeastern Michigan’s economy by supporting startups, including connecting job seekers with employers. “Ann Arbor Spark does a lot of things for the community that ZLI does for the university,” Thornhill points out.
CREATING A ‘SEAMLESS’ TRANSITION FROM STUDENT-ENTREPRENEUR TO ALUMNI-ENTREPRENEUR
Back within the university, Thornhill says the Munger Residences are a place where graduate students can live and collaborate with students from different programs. They were created solely for “trans-disciplinary” collaboration across different graduate programs. “It creates this living and learning environment where people get to collaborate and connect across disciplines,” Thornhill says.
Besides the investment to building infrastructure, Thornhill says what sets Michigan Ross apart is its dedication to creating a “seamless” transition for student-entrepreneurs to alumni-entrepreneurs. “When they graduate, they don’t just step out the door and into the abyss, they are getting a lot more support in that first year after graduation,” Thornhill explains, noting there is funding and accelerator space available to recent graduates. “It’s a much more seamless process of going from student-status to graduate-status but continuing to receive the support — financially and otherwise — to actually get up and running.”
PURPOSE-DRIVEN CAREERS STILL POPULAR
Like many other schools, Thornhill says one of the biggest developments among current MBA students is the “commitment” of students wanting to start or join some sort of purpose-driven venture.
“It’s not just, how can I get something started, get a quick exit, and then move on to the next startup,” Thornhill says. “It’s, I want to do something that has personal meaning — and that doesn’t mean it has to be a social venture or non-for-profit — but, even the for-profit ventures are things that they are doing because it has meaning to them.”
That could mean starting their own business or joining someone else’s, Thornhill explains, but the guiding principle is finding meaning and connecting that meaning to their work-life. “The people coming through our programs right now really want to find meaning and connect it to their work-life,” Thornhill says.
“In some ways, I think it has a lot to do with, gaining back control,” Thornhill continues. “If somebody feels powerless, through the events of the world, whether it’s on the environmental side, or economic side, or political spectrum, when people feel powerless, that can be very stress-inducing. And one of the ways you can gain back control is by seizing something that does have meaning for you and gaining control of at least a part of your own world.”
THE FUTURE OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP REMAINS STRONG
As for the future of entrepreneurship education and the entrepreneurial climate in general, Thornhill believes it’s still as good a time as any to launch a venture.
“If you have a good idea, a great team, and are pursuing a meaningful problem, I think the investment capital is here and you can always get the capital you need,” Thornhill says, noting how mainstream media’s attention on the entrepreneur and startups has only fueled the interest in the area.
“The effect of entrepreneurship becoming more prominent as a relevant career and aspirational goal for people is continuing to get stronger,” Thornhill adds. “And I think that’s only going to get stronger, which will just keep bringing more students into business schools focusing on entrepreneurship.”