Spaghetti, Social Media, and Scavenger Hunts: How Do They Connect?

By Kate Toporski, CFE Content Development Intern

At the beginning of September, 60 U-M students came together in the Duderstadt Atrium anxious to participate in the CFE’s first Innovation Challenge of the semester. With prizes and pride on the line, student teams were challenged to create the highest, independently standing structure using only raw spaghetti and marshmallows. A few weeks later, students were presented with a second Innovation Challenge: get face-time or phone-time with an influential entrepreneurial leader to ask them what problem new startups should be solving. Social media was flooded with #ThisIsELP pics and quotes from students hanging with entrepreneurs from all over the country. And finally, last week concluded CFE’s third challenge where students entered an entrepreneurial rat race, diving deep into the incredible ecosystem of resources and mentorship available in Ann Arbor and at U-M. So what do spaghetti towers, tweets with business leaders, and a scavenger hunts have to do with entrepreneurship?

Each exercise placed students in a challenge requiring specific skills in innovation that emulate a true entrepreneurial experience. Spaghetti towers require coordination and leadership of a team, and the ability to quickly assess a project and iterate with limited resources. The social media challenge pushed students to put themselves out there and practice growing their network. With limited time, the scavenger hunt required students to look everywhere they could to leverage resources and support outside of their own two-person team.

Required: teamwork, iteration, networking and leveraging external resources…sound familiar? Welcome to the world of a startup.

Although there was an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bay Area on the line, students who participated in the Innovation Challenges were also driving to get noticed for the CFE’s newest undergraduate experience, the Entrepreneurs Leadership Program (ELP). ELP is designed to grow students’ skills in the areas of entrepreneurial leadership, innovation, and teamwork. The CFE will select 20 top students this fall to participate in a year of entrepreneur-intensive experiences, including six credits of entrepreneurial education seminars taught by real business leaders, and a guaranteed paid internship placement at a successful startup.

(The application for ELP is open NOW through Oct. 25!)

Whether students were aiming to “get noticed” in preparation for applying for ELP or just looking to push themselves with a challenge, eye-opening learning happened across the board.

U-M Engineering Freshmen Cameron Rosen and Joe Saginaw won the first Innovation Challenge, a feat which required much more effort and coordination than they had anticipated.  

Cameron Rosen said: “Some of the students were told that the winner of the ‘Spaghetti Challenge’ would be awarded $10,000. But when that much pressure was applied, nobody was successful. The 1st Innovation Challenge taught me that there is more value in the process than the prize.”

Joe Saginaw added: “In addition to the prize, Matt Gibson [CFE’s undergraduate program director] questioned us: Do you want to be a poet, or write poetry? That really got me thinking. Do I want to be more than just the label, and actually be part of the innovation? I realized then that I want to solve problems, I want to innovate.”

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Innovation Challenge 2 pushed students to step outside their comfort zone to engage high-profile leaders in the entrepreneurial community. With a short 48 hours, students were able to reach out to their leadership inspirations and get exclusive insight into what problems real entrepreneurs are seeing in industry. In a 21st century startup, online networks are just as important as personal connections, so students were also tasked with making a splash on social media with #ThisIsELP.    

“This challenge was created to set apart those students who weren’t afraid to take a courageous step forward,” said Matt Gibson. “We wanted to see who had the guts to put themselves out there and make genuine connections in a short period of time.”  

The winners – Tatiana Yugay and Kevin Yanos – listened, and took Innovation Challenge 2 to a new level. From creating YouTube videos to a WordPress blog to an Instagram rampage, the two were able to quickly build an entrepreneurial network that included Campus Protein, Melsys Illustrations, and Zingerman’s very own Ari Weinzweig.

The third exercise presented students with a challenge everyone faces when trying to bring an idea to life. When starting from ground zero, the best chance for success is to leverage as many existing, willing and able resources to help – but where do you find them? Many students don’t realize how many avenues of support are at their figure tips in Ann Arbor and at The University. So, Innovation Challenge 3 sent students out on a journey to discover the amazing entrepreneurial ecosystem living and growing around them.    

Over the course of seven days, teams traversed Ann Arbor looking for clues, asking questions, and making connections. The stakes were high as students competed for an all-expenses paid trip to Silicon Valley. It was a tight race, but winners Kevin Yanos and Sahibdeep Gill edged out the competition with their relentless effort and dedication to discovering all the U-M/A2 ecosystem had to offer. See some of their work here.  

These challenges served as a platform for students looking to not just be “innovators,” but to actually innovate. And this is only the beginning. The CFE is currently accepting applications for The Entrepreneurs Leadership Program through October 25 at midnight. The program is designed to transform students to be entrepreneurial and do innovation. Will that be you?