By Kate Toporski, CFE Content Development Intern
After the State of Michigan, the second largest living population of University of Michigan alumni resides in California, specifically in the Bay Area. Although our current students and these alums are physically thousands of miles away, they have a lot more in common than you think. For every student entrepreneur in Ann Arbor breaking technology barriers, revolutionizing industry and risking failure to try a solution never tested before, there is a wolverine counterpart on the opposite coast doing the same. What would happen if they meet?
Every year, the College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship brings a group of high potential student innovators to the Bay Area to engage in an active exchange of thought, advice and perspectives with the area’s entrepreneurial giants. These students mingle with, pitch to and leave a lasting impression on (if we say so ourselves) Michigan alumni leaders on the west coast. The experience is full of exploration and learning as both parties are exposed to the trending ideas that are driving Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. Our students act as ambassadors as well, drawing connections and comparisons to the entrepreneurship environment unique to the Midwest.
The Weather Underground Startup Trek (WUST) in 2016 brought students in front of challenges and experiences that pushed them outside their comfort zone. Let’s hear directly from them the lessons learned and impact made:
Day 1 Opening Alumni Reception: Keynote Speaker, Josh Tetrick (Law ‘08)
Upon arriving in SF on Thursday night, Michigan students and CFE staff were greeted with an alumni networking event, where Michigan Law Alumni and Founder of Hampton Creek– Josh Tetrick- gave a keynote address. Angel Perez, an engineering student entrepreneur who is part of a plethora of CFE’s courses and practicums, shares his experience:
“‘What pisses you off?’ Josh said. In the past, I pursued different ventures that I thought were pretty cool, rather than one that addressed a problem that actually pissed me off. It all became clear to me when he said that opening night. I immediately started to feel responsible about doing something to change the current situation in Puerto Rico where I’m from. I realized that if my generation doesn’t do something to make it better, it might be too late for the next one. In that moment of clarity I knew that no matter what, I had to try my hardest to make it happen. When we are young, we are taught to dream big and chase for the stars, but somehow we forget that along the way, we conform. I’d like to thank everyone at Hampton Creek for opening my eyes on WUST. You all have truly impacted my life in a very positive way. You have motivated me to create an entirely different system. One that will remind those kids from that beautiful island in the Caribbean to chase for the stars and beyond. One that will make them feel like they’re good enough to pursue whatever they set their mind to. But more importantly, one that will teach them how to answer the question — ‘What would it look like if we started
Over?’” -Angel Perez, CSE ‘17
Day 2 Opening Discussion: The State of Investment in The Valley
Friday was a busy day for the WUST crew as they traveled around San Francisco to hear and be challenged by some of the country’s best entrepreneurs. WUST participants were able to take part in an investment talk at Silicon Valley Bank, where Kevin Yanos- student entrepreneur member of ELP and recent graduate of CFE’s student incubator,
TechArb found reassurance in the financial future of starting a company:
“The talk we had with Silicon Valley Bank on WUST reassured that the startup world is for me. Even with the odds stacked up against, the risk is actually worth it most of the time – SVB really pushed these facts hard on us. SVB showed us how the expansive network of people and funding makes Silicon Valley a very special place. It’s a place where you’re surrounded by some of the top people in the world, all with goals to change the world. It was really exciting to learn about it.” -Kevin Yanos, ELP & TechArb Fellow
Day 2 Startup Tour and Business Challenges
After a riveting talk from Silicon Valley Bank, the group of student entrepreneurs split up, heading to TuneIn, InstaCart, Hampton Creek, and Clever. TuneIn, providing over 10,000 radio stations and programs on demand, caught the interest of Lead Animator of student startup Leesta, a student startup aiming to incorporate woman into history education- James Reslier-Wells:
“I’d say the best part about going to TuneIn was the opportunity to have a real, honest conversation with someone who was invested in helping me understand the startup realm. Getting 1:1 access to the leaders of these companies gave me a great sense of what it’s actually like to work at a startup. That is probably the most inspiring thing I took away from the trip.” -James Reslier-Wells, Screen Arts & Culture ‘15, Lead Animator at Leesta & TechArb Fellow.
The group who visited InstaCart, the new online way to order groceries, found their seasoned startup advice a breath of fresh air! Second year master’s student in the School of Public Health, Ali Jensen, shares how the experience gave her motivation and inspiration for her own startup:
“The visit to InstaCart was a great way to see a mature startup. They have the resources to recruit and attract competitive employees, yet they are still open to new markets for their business. InstaCart staff asked us to brainstorm ideas for new markets and services. We divided into two groups and reported back our groups’ ideas. It was interesting to see the differences between the two groups. One group focused on incorporating more tech infrastructure into the process, while the other group focused more on behavior modification through nudging and new service offerings. Seeing a mature startup still so focused on innovation gave me hope for the future of my startup.” -Ali Jensen, Masters of Public Health ‘16
Day 2 Afternoon Discussion: The Value of Relationships
Friday afternoon’s discussion was lead by a group of innovation leaders from Sephora, one of the world’s leading makeup producers. The panel was a highlight for freshman student Merin McDivitt. As the Director of Education for Leesta, McDivitt enjoyed how Sephora empowers women in innovation:
“Well, first of all, I love Sephora. It is one of my all time favorite stores, and not just for their product, but because I think they are really innovative and no matter what store I walk into anywhere in the world, they seem to have fostered a really welcoming and friendly work culture centered around women who love makeup and experimentation, and find these things empowering rather than limiting. So, of course I was very excited to hear from the top women at their innovation lab, and I was not disappointed! They were very charismatic and personable. I am always intrigued to hear how people create a comfortable work environment that is still conducive to productivity and efficiency, and they have done so at Sephora in a way that fosters creativity. It was a really positive experience!” -Merin McDivitt LS&A student, Director of Education at Leesta & TechArb Fellow
Day 2 Gender Equality Panel
In addition to Sephora’s relationships panel, Friday was finished out by the Gender Equality Panel, where students, staff, and alumni were challenged to question the fields of entrepreneurship and technology when it comes to gender equality. Computer Science and History student Kiley Judge, among many others, was inspired by the talk as a
female entrepreneur herself:
“I was inspired by Friday’s Gender Equality Panel. It’s always encouraging as a women in tech and
entrepreneurship to see the conversation about feminism continuing. The event exceed my expectations in several ways. It was not simply a lecture to a student group, but a gathering of community members to motivate everyone to rethink equality. The conversation was not confined to a simple question and answer format, but spiraled off into inspired conversations between CEO, founders, and students. I made some great connections and feel like I helped inspire change because of this event.” -Kiley Judge, ELP Fellow
Day 3 at LinkedIn: Pitch Day
Saturday brought the entrepreneurial immersion to a close with an exciting tour of the LinkedIn Headquarters. Students were able to network, pitch, and learn from those who have created booming success in tech entrepreneurship. U-M student Rachel Jaffee shares how the experience perfectly capped off the trip:
“At LinkedIn, we first learned about how the company pitches its services to consumers, which was incredibly useful for all of us who are learning how to create really short and compelling pitches. We then had the ability to pitch our own projects to our peers. This was a great way for all of us to tell the entire group what we were working on in a really safe space where our peers could offer constructive feedback. I got to present my start-up, called Aether, a mobile application that helps emerging entrepreneurs find mentors and collaborators —- kinda like Tinder, but for start-up ideas. I then was able to interface with influential alumni who gave incredible feedback on revenue models and go-to market plans. Overall the experience felt a little like a whirlwind—just the night before I was up with a group of students who were helping me understand how to do a financial projection—but the hectic pace combined with really supportive peers pushed me to think in the longer term about the company I’m building, and I think Aether is all the better for it.” -Rachel Jaffee, MPH ‘16 & Founder of Aether
Apply for our next immersion trek: Detroit!
The 48-hours of WUST were jam-packed with opportunities to explore, network, and expand. Students and startups alike left with renewed motivation, fresh perspectives, and the birth of more dreams to turn into realities. If you’re interested in having a similar experience by attending one of the Center for Entrepreneurship’s immersion treks,we are currently accepting applications for our Detroit Trek (DTrek) through April 14! This full day trip will take place May 5 and put students in front of the unexpected innovators driving Detroit’s hot entrepreneurial scene. Application and details here!