By Kate Toporski, Content Development Intern
540,000: the number of Michigan alumni that live, work, and thrive in countries around the world today. Yet with that impressive six-digit population, it is the individuals within that community who impact, create, and disrupt. From conducting ground-breaking research to owning and managing corporations, U-M alumni are regarded as some of the most successful leaders and innovators in the global economy.
With some of the most prestigious, known-by-one-name alumni in the world – Ross, Fadell, Costolo, Page, Drako, and Illitch to name a few – Michigan boasts a reputation for innovation. And while the career stories of those six have filled magazine columns and textbook pages, what if we got to know them at their (relative) start? When their companies were forming, pivoting, and poised to disrupt? Turning the spotlight to the Bay Area, there are three Wolverine alumni who are using entrepreneurship as a platform of change, and creating movements to make the universe litter-free, revolutionize the creative process, and make travel experiences more culturally rich.
Let’s meet our Wolverines-to-watch:
This Ann Arbor native was a natural to business development and sales. Graduating from U of M in 2002 with a B.A. in Literature from LS&A, Ann Montgomery discovered early on that her strength was creating connections with and for people. She started working for Airbnb where she learned how to market to a particular audience and push a new product with success. From sales to networking, Montgomery was a pro, and quickly shined as an adventurous leader. It wasn’t long after she seasoned her skills at Airbnb that she set out to start her own community-based company.
After moving nearly 30 times by the time she was 25, Ann found that the hardest part was learning quickly how to fit in to a new neighborhood. Moving in took a couple of hours, but adapting to a new city – finding the best coffee shop
or a place to get your dry cleaning – could take months. “It could take a year to feel ‘local’,” said Ann – and she wasn’t alone in her frustration. With personal moving experience and sales expertise, Ann created NabeWise. The company produced a content-feed of data about a local community that was licensed out to real estate agents to share with neighborhood newcomers. From nightlife to shopping to public transportation, NabeWise helped thousands of people acclimate quicker, and better, to their new home.
As the pieces started to come together for NabeWise, Ann’s experiences came full circle. Airbnb purchased NabeWise, now called Airbnb Neighborhood, allowing travelers to make comfortable and educated decisions about their reservation locations. While Ann’s NabeWise exit was an incredible success, she says it didn’t come without challenges: “Sometimes, people don’t think you’ll make it, but entrepreneurship is [about] being completely exhausted while still maintaining belief. Set yourself up for luck through persistence and hard work.”
Today, Ann is taking some time off from leading Airbnb’s entrepreneurial projects to start a new venture – a mobile software called Rolo that is still in the prototyping stage. Stay tuned (and keep Rolo – and Ann – on your radar).
Jeff Kirschner’s mission to rid the planet (yes, the entire planet!) of litter started when his daughter saw an empty cat litter bin stuck along the bank of a creek. “Daddy, that doesn’t go there!” she pointed. The next week, Jeff saw a cigarette butt on the street and began to think – how can I make taking care of the planet easier and hold people more accountable for it? He snapped a picture of the trash and posted it on Instagram…and that’s when Litterati was born.
From that cigarette-butt on, the ’94 U-M LS&A alumnus – whose previous entrepreneurial roles included the co-founder of mobile startup Razz Inc. – became litter-obsessed., Jeff picked up trash, whether on the street, in the park, or near his home, and posted it to Instagram with the hashtag #Litterati. He found that using #Litterati made litter more approachable, more relevant. “It became a record of positive impact,” says Kirschner. And it definitely caught on.
Starting from that one Instagram post of a cigarette and a sidewalk (that Jeff jokingly refers to as the “butt crack”), Litterati grew into the world’s largest crowd-sourced platform of cleaning the planet and green awareness. And the mix of environmental impact, art, and technology has also become a formidable big-data giant; with nearly 200,000 users posting with the hashtag and 17.4k followers, Litterati is constantly collecting data about what kind of litter is left behind and where it’s located. This helps city officials and individuals attack trash problems head on in a systemized way. For example, one local elementary school found, through Litterati, that the most common piece of litter on and around their property was straw wrappers. With the data, school staff and students went to the principal asking to change which straws they use in order reduce the waste. On a corporate scale, Jeff has begun to work with globally-recognized restaurant chains to bring changes to packaging…or to simply fund the placement of a trash receptacle where logo-emblazoned coffee cups are discarded en masse. Using the existing platform of Instagram, Jeff is poised to make global change, locally.
“The litter found in a community can say a lot about what needs to be changed. The power of data is real,” says Jeff, “We are all just making sense of a problem that affects everyone.” To join the Litterati movement and watch Jeff lead this change, visit litterati.org and follow them on Instagram @litterati.
“My first client was worth my entire year’s salary at Wired. I knew it was right.” says Robin McIntosh, an alumna of Michigan’s Residential College. From her hometown in Palm Beach, Florida where she came from a family of entrepreneurs, Robin was a triple major in Literature, Art History, and Creative Writing, with a minor in Spanish. As a Jack-(or Jill)-of-all-trades, Robin moved out to Los Angeles to pursue a writing job, but then moved to San Francisco a few years later to attend art school. Art school was where she found her passion in design. Regretting having not taken full advantage of the opportunities at U of M, Robin charged into her post-graduate education in LA with renewed enthusiasm, unbeknownst to her art student peers.
Over the next several years, Robin said yes to every project made available, growing her skills, network, and love for graphic design. Upon completing her time at the California Center for the Arts, Robin was offered a position as the Art Director at Wired Magazine. While the job grew her skills and experience, Robin found herself dreading work each morning. Sitting at a desk in an office for eight hours a day didn’t spark the passion and inspiration she hoped for in her career. After four months, Robin and colleague, Kate Harris, branched off to create their own design company SIREN, now one of California’s premiere branding agencies.
“I went into my first meeting pretending like I knew it all. I was confident, young, and hungry- which landed me my first client,” said Robin. From then on, Siren was her focus. In the first year alone, Siren gained clients such as IDEO, the City of San Francisco, and the Red Cross. Robin and her co-founder credit this early success to their willingness to take risks. Robin says: “To me, entrepreneurship is one big ‘why not?!’ People are always scared away by the worst case scenarios, but what about the benefits? You’re only young and hungry once- so why not risk it all?”
Today, SIREN is thriving, and Robin is enjoying all the perks that entrepreneurship offers – including a global office. Recently, she has done projects in Ireland, Thailand, and the Arctic Circle and she has engaged in several projects in her home state, such as a 90-day health platform for substance abusers which won its category at the Accelerate Michigan competition last fall.
Even with early success, these Wolverine entrepreneurs in the Bay Area are just getting started, and through the Center for Entrepreneurship’s M Engage program, Ann, Jeff, and Robin are sharing their stories, advice and time (mentorship) to students and other alumni. Together, we are building strong entrepreneurial communities outside the classroom, and inspiring the next generation of individuals to impact and influence. If you’d like to connect with them, share your own story, or contact the M Engage program, head here.