Thoughts, reflections and tales from M-Engage Program Director, Jessica Henry:
I hope WUST 2015 is (just one small) part of their (amazingly awesome) story…
On a Thursday evening in March – at the end of what is University of Michigan’s spring break – 42 students paraded down Market Street, past the Old Navy flagship store and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Past the Four Seasons and the Super Duper Burger. They had descended upon this 70-degree-day, many from 10-degree-originations. Around their necks were press-pass-looking cards dangling from maize-and-blue lanyards, proclaiming (if a printed card can proclaim) an acronym known to Michigan innovation insiders:
(Pronunciation: wüst. Acronym for: Weather Underground Startup Trek)
And with that parade of student innovation, WUST 2015 began.
Well, no, wait. I lied. Record scratch. In actuality, WUST 2015 began in November 2014 when we opened applications for the next installment of this annual trek to the Bay Area innovation community. Targeting 40ish students, our goal was to attract and accept a diverse pool of student innovators, with ideas, businesses, prototypes, and plans. What we landed on was a diverse pool of student innovators who were not looking to have WUST be the story, but open to WUST being a few lines, a paragraph, even a chapter, of their entrepreneurial journey.
So on that Thursday afternoon, 42 students marched into the event space of Digital Garage – a startup co-working space in the (barely) South of Market district of San Francisco. They came to San Francisco with ideas, and our intent was to give this group of aspiring current innovators the opportunity to articulate, share, and challenge those ideas, while gathering how-to’s from those who tread the entrepreneurship boards before them. This was not a boot camp or a competition or a tour. This was 48 hours of access, pushing each student and team to collect the expertise they need to move their own entrepreneurial career forward. To get out of WUST what they put into WUST.
So let’s get to it.
Seeing something called a “networking event” on an agenda can either cause one to anticipate anxiety or boredom. Or both. Networking as a function is not innovative or unique. By definition, don’t we have the opportunity to network every day while on the bus, in line at Starbucks, at a bar? But an event dedicated to networking (or: “networking event”) takes away the anticipatory gain of a new location, latte, or Manhattan-on-the-rocks and focuses on the anxiety-ridden purpose of…connecting with strangers for a benefit that is not guaranteed.
So what better way to kick off a 48-hour trip to the Bay Area with a…networking event?
Stick with me. It’s because networking also puts the power into the hands of the individuals; you have the opportunity to get out of an hour what you want to get out of it.
For the twelve-ish months, our Bay Area M Engage program has been building out a community of innovators. Investors, founders, team members, and advisors. UM graduates with engineering, business, liberal arts, and law degrees. Those with a few months in the Bay, and those with 20+ years. We started with a strong base of alumni advocates and champions of Michigan entrepreneurship, and through both community events and 1:1 meetings, we are building on that community so that we have an at-the-ready network to support all generations of University of Michigan talent. Enter, the WUST networking event, allowing our students to introduce themselves to functional, industry, and geography experts ready to dig into conversations with the next generation of innovators. My favorite quote of the evening: “I wish I could write down everything people are saying and still keep talking…I’m learning so much.”
And that was just night one. Four of our forty-eight hours.
So what problems are companies tackling? What is innovation when you move beyond the idea? What is merely a feature and what is truly a big idea? How do you articulate your business and your experience? Day two was a series of ask-the-experts and case studies where innovation is not simply talked about, it’s happening. Between speakers from Le Tote, LinkedIn, and the startup consultancy CleverPoint, students visited three companies driving and thriving on innovation: Sephora, Twilio, and Pinterest. The takeaways…?
1. Having the idea doesn’t mean you need to act on the idea. Dig deeper.
Working with our Michigan alumni at both Twilio and Pinterest, I loved their approach to creating a case study: state the fact, then question if it’s truly a problem you need to solve. Whether it is expanding your customer demographic or expanding into a new market, the fact does not inherently become the problem to solve. For example, Sephora’s new innovation curriculum challenges internal team members to create truly big ideas – beyond features – by pushing them to dig deeper, challenge, think bigger, and discard/pivot when necessary. And across the city, Pinterest leaders Jud Hoffman (BA, JD) and Greg Roseberry (BBA) gauges all strategies and suggestions against their organizational mission to decide which ideas are relevant and actionable. Same rules apply to the entrepreneur…not all facts are problems, and not all problems are ones you should solve.
And to that point…
2. As an entrepreneur, who you are is as important as what you are making.
Between speaker sessions, a number of student teams were asked to share not their pitch or business model, but how they met their co-founder and why their founding team works. Stories that began as “we met in September” morphed into glimpses of the founders’ interests and drivers. Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson (BS) – who just completed the company’s first acquisition earlier that week – kicked off the visit to their SOMA headquarters by noting that entrepreneurs must back up their ideas and skills with both passion and purpose. Paul Mestemaker (BBA) of CleverPoint LLC shared his story of teaching himself to code as a teenager in order to solve problems…and then giving himself the leeway to find the problems he truly wanted to solve. Brian Rumao (BSE, MSE), the Chief of Staff to the CEO of LinkedIn shared how to package your experience and your skills into an online brand that accurately reflects not only what you do, but who you are…and I am pretty sure most people in the room – students and staff – reconsidered their LinkedIn Summary after that session.
3. Invest in your product first. The product is your marketing, and your brand, and your public relations.
Lauren Miller (MBA), on day five of her new role as the Vice President of Marketing with Le Tote (and two days after hosting Good Morning America in the Le Tote offices) kicked off the morning by underscoring that a focus on the product is the foundation for marketing, particularly in a startup environment when funds and resources are scarce. Standing in Sephora’s new Innovation Lab in the Dogpatch neighborhood of San Francisco (PS – the University of Michigan was the first non-press visitors to the space!), Bridget Dolan and Kristy Kuncaitis (BBA) shared that their attention to both product and service has created an organic online community of beauty loyalists, educating one another – and thus prompting – Sephora products. A focus on a great product builds out the brand and marketing.
Advice, expertise, stories, anecdotes. All in preparation for what was to come.
Gathering for an 8am departure (“pack, check out, eat breakfast by 8am!” was the last shouted words they heard from me on Friday evening…), it was the student’s turn to command the room. As I had mentioned when I started this post, every student who came to WUST 2015 came with an idea. Many had participated – and won – competitions and grants. Many were preparing for competitions and grants. Some were headed to Austin’s SXSW the following week. Some were preparing for The Startup competition back on campus. All were innovators, and all were ready to grab the mic and share their story.
During his talk on storytelling and pitching on Friday, Paul Mestemaker encouraged students to go into a conversation with intent, with an “ask.” And that intent did not need to be – nor should it be – fundraising. Advice on market, prototype, presentation skills, problem/solution, and team make-up are all relevant intents. The point is: have an ask, have an intent. So when a bus full of 42 student innovators pulled up next to the Keynote Systems headquarters in San Mateo, students were ready to share their ideas and business models with our coaching panels of alumni experts.
And a word on those experts: just as Thursday and Friday had proven, the depth of innovation talent in the University of Michigan alumni network is matched only by the inherent interest in students’ entrepreneurial aspirations. Our coaches truly showed how the network evolves and supports, from the MPowered founder who is now a team member at Apple, to a former WUST student who recently sold his company to Yahoo!, to a CFE board member and Michigan eLab partner, to a Ross alumna who has founded an organization that encourages founders to focus on company culture in the growth stage. This was an impressive team of alumni who came to meet the students, and left making new connections with one another (one of my favorite anecdotes is two alumnae who, after meeting at the Showcase Day, started talking about how to connect UM women in technology…this kind of creative collision is what we want!).
So back to the Showcase Day. Much thanks to our partners at Keynote Systems who graciously opened their entire office space for our use, allowing students to practice-before-pitching, and maybe get in a few rounds of pool or ping-pong. The office space was ideal and the buzz palpable as students presented to and engaged with small groups of 4-8 alumni, in conference rooms with names such as Xavier’s Mansion, Atlantis, and Command Center (any other comic book fans out there?). Two pitch sessions with some pizza in between…intense and constructive.
Some final words from our alumni experts:
“Don’t be afraid.”
“Go for it.”
And my favorite, particularly after a day of feedback…
“A lot of advice is not good: decide what you want to listen to.”
I close this recap as we closed our 48-hour journey of connections, immersions, and showcases. Encouraging our students to include the people, anecdotes, advice, and feedback into their own innovation story, Jennifer Tejada (BA) face-timed into our final minutes from a beach in Australia:
“So I am here to tell you…a University of Michigan education will take you places.”
Yes, yes it will. And along with my CFE colleagues, our alumni and experts, and our corporate partners, I am excited to see how WUST is written into the journey of these 42 innovators.
WUST was not the story, because the story continues…