Guest blog from ELP student: Connor Borrego 


University of Michigan ‘17 | LS&A

Political Science & Entrepreneurship


Michiganders and their businesses touch many fields. From technology and renewable energy, to aviation and aeronautics, the food and beverage industry, and, of course, automotive, there is a great deal going on.

Often these Michigan businesses are leaders in their respective sectors. The importance of this economic landscape lies in Michigan’s diversity. While the state is known for the Motor City, the Big 3 and little else, there is much more growth and activity to appreciate within the state.


How Michigan Supports Growing Industries

As part of the Entrepreneurs Leadership Program, I am spending my summer assisting established Michigan businesses as well as young startup companies. I am a research fellow at the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy (IRLEE), and am fortunate enough to be able to work with both the First Customer Program (FCP) and the Defense Manufacturing Assistance Program (DMAP). DMAP recently had its budget renewed and expanded by the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Office of Economic Adjustment to continue to help defense manufacturers in the midwest diversify their services. After DMAP’s pilot program (2014-16) with only a quarter of the budget was able to make a significant impact.

DMAP works with companies that currently or in the recent past have been awarded defense contracts by the United States Government through the DoD. DMAP provides assistance to contractors to diversify their customer base. DMAP helps these companies leverage their current operations to expand their product offerings and diversify the markets in which the sell their products. This is done to help minimize risk of revenue loss, job loss, and small community economic recession during defense downsizing. FCP is a program where startups, especially those founded by extremely technical teams, receive help to gain traction with potential customers and generate early revenue streams.

In general, these programs support companies with significant growth opportunities. Often we work with established companies, some of which have shown signs of stagnation or even decline. Others are small companies with an opportunity to make an impact, but face a significant uphill battle to get there. A bit of IRLEE support can go a long way.

In my role at IRLEE, I support these companies in a variety of ways. I am involved in evaluating the companies, researching the markets their core products are in, and recommending the actions they should take to improve their business models. It is a perfect opportunity to apply what I have been learning in the classroom.


These “Small” Companies are a Big Deal

I currently work with three DMAP companies and a single FCP client. While I cannot disclose specifics, I have been researching a lot about energy storage, lasers, armor, data analytics, and light-weighting.

The established businesses I work with are not some run of the mill mom-and-pop operation. These businesses are leading-edge, multi-million dollar companies being awarded multi-million dollar contracts by the likes of the DoD, the DoE (Department of Energy), and commercial companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. My former project manager, Dan Rubenstein, liked to remind our team of the real impact we can have on the state’s economy when working with such capital-heavy companies.

The small business I am working with are no laughing matter either. They currently have an international user base of over half-a-million people spread over 33 cities, and have had Uber and Advance Publications contact them for access to their product.


A Commitment to Grow

In my short time in this role, I have already learned a lot from working with these Michigan-based businesses. Of the four companies I have worked with, I had the pleasure of sitting down with two different businesses’ chief executives to initiate IRLEE’s relationship with them. These executives held Ph.D.s, had 20+ years of individual work experience in their field, as well as a smattering of MBAs tying their braintrust together.

I have never felt so under-qualified in my life to be in a room, and yet I was able to help lead discussions, delving into what service we could be of them and identifying current areas for improvement in their business model. These men did not shy away from my questioning or look down upon me for my age, but were generally interested in what insights I could provide them. These executives were  committed to seeing their businesses, which had begun to plateau and even shrink in the wake of the military scale-backs, diversify and grow in profitability.

According to Dan, these responses are typical of most DMAP and FCP companies. They recognize that with our help, they can create, measure, and track economic impact. My interactions with Michigan businesses through IRLEE opened my eyes beyond the typical automotive narrative that tends to paint the state’s economic landscape. My first-hand experience is a testament to the diversity of businesses large and small that make up Michigan’s current and future economy.


Why This Matters To Me

While IRLEE is my work from 9-5, I spend my off hours working on my own entrepreneurial venture called, Totem. What I have seen with economic growth opportunities, applies directly to growing industries and startups.

Totem-attachmentAt Totem, I am the head of operations and business development. I am always looking for ways to get our application in the hands of users, potential partners, and possible clients. One such interaction was just last week with the COO of Detroit-based Rocket Fiber, Edi Demaj. Edi, who is currently hosting another ELP internship at Rocket Fiber, is a self-made immigrant with a passion for all things business.

In addition to running Rocket Fiber, a company laying the infrastructure for Michigan to access 1-10 Gb internet speeds, Edi is involved in two other startups and mentors several other teams, including my own. Edi and his story serve as another example of the great diversity of companies which exist in the state, and also the helpful nature of Michigan’s businesses both young and established. 

As a person committed to entrepreneurship, I am lucky to be in a state with such a variety of career opportunities that grows yearly, with friendly business leaders that are pioneers in their industries.