What a Day in West Michigan taught U-M Students about Entrepreneurship
By Kate Toporski, CFE Content Development Intern
It was a brisk Friday morning as 50 Michigan students gathered around The Cube, anxiously waiting the day ahead. The Center for Entrepreneurship (CFE) staff and students were about to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure as they headed to explore a booming ecosystem of innovation in the western part of the state. With twice the number of participants as year one, the Grand Rapids Entrepreneurs in Action Trek (GREAT) kicked off its second year with a deep immersion into the startups, accelerators, and other cutting-edge companies that have been driving entrepreneurial spirit in GR.
The students on the trip covered five of U-M’s academic colleges, and more than half of the students came from the College of Engineering. This diverse group ranged from freshman to PhD candidates, but all had one common goal: to learn what unique opportunities, either in starting their own company or joining an existing company, western Michigan has to offer. During the day these students spent on GREAT, they engaged with more than 20 entrepreneurs, founders, and CEOs, followed by an alumni reception where 25 different west-Michigan companies were represented. The exposure and direct contact with influential leaders in the area was the first step toward shaping their future careers.
The reputation of a given geography often plays a critical role when students are making decisions about their career paths. Cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco have often called to U-M’s most talented students. The Center for Entrepreneurship, however, strives to expose students to the wealth of growing entrepreneurial hubs within Michigan. On the west side of the state, innovation is now on every corner, taking over companies in technology and manufacturing industries. Through active, out-of-classroom learning experiences such as the GREAT trek, CFE provides an environment for students to develop skills and learn from the alumni and founders who are driving our state forward.
The trek program exposes students to the possibility that with talent and entrepreneurial drive, they could make an immense impact on companies in Michigan, rather than become another “intern” in the crowd of “name brand” tech companies in other geographies. And believe us, these opportunities are resonating with students (The CFE had so many student applications for GREAT this year that we hit capacity and had to turn students away.) At the end of the trek, students were blown away by how many “cool” companies are booming in Grand Rapids, and overwhelmed as U-M alumni and business-owners personally encouraged and welcomed them to join their team. One student remarked: “I’ve never had an opportunity to network with so many people who were genuinely interested in helping me.” That’s the Michigan difference in action. Let’s look closer at this year’s trip and all the influential learning opportunities along the way:
Stop 1: Michigan Industrial Tools (MIT)
At Michigan Industrial Tools (MIT), students met with U-M Law alumni John (CEO) and Jeff (President) Amash. MIT has been in business for more than 40 years and is a brilliant example of a well-established company continuing to push the boundaries of industry status quo. The company started with John and Jeff’s father selling hand tools (or any product he could sell) door-to-door. Their father had relentless drive, committing to himself that he would not return home until he had sold everything he packed in the car that day. Carrying the entrepreneurial spirit of their father into the 21st century, the Amash brothers have transformed the hand tool industry as one of the first companies to make direct-to-customer, online selling a main channel of their sales.
MIT is furthering its leadership in product innovation by implementing a strategy where tools can be made in the U.S. and sold at competitive prices to products manufactured overseas. This plan, originally developed by an intern, uses an automotive manufacturing model of multiple suppliers and one centralized assembly. The Amash brothers are hoping to break conventional ways of thinking about manufacturing and challenge the industry leaders, Taiwan and China, head on: “Risk has value,” said President Jeff Amash. “We thrive on being globally competitive, using local manufacturers for our products. This way we have more control over the process and the quality of our products and can work directly with suppliers to keep cost down.”
During the visit at MIT, students learned that if their ideas are making people think out of their comfort zone, they are usually on to something. At MIT, innovation and entrepreneurial thinking was critical to success as they transformed a business their immigrant father started out of his car into becoming Amazon’s best-selling hand tool provider.
Stop 2: Founder’s Brewery
The next stop was Grand Rapid’s famous Founder’s Brewery, where there was a lot on tap for students to explore including endless amounts of inspiration and advice for up and coming entrepreneurs. The Founder’s story is one of passion: starting in one city block of Grand Rapids, Founder’s has grown by 65 percent over the past seven years, spreading their beer distribution to 37 states and 11 countries. What makes the company unique is their endless commitment to sustainable and eco-conscious processes, while not compromising quality of the product. At Founder’s, they don’t pasteurize their beer, which has been known to be significantly less efficient than other beer-making processes. Instead, they focus on condensing waste of materials and remain conscious of their water use. They accept that their process isn’t the quickest, because it allows them to stay true to the values they care about as a company, and to the values of their customers.
While at the brewery, students heard from the company’s founders, toured the cutting-edge, newly-expanded facility, and engaged in a mini-workshop. They worked directly with Founder’s leaders and alumni through business challenges, and heard advice on how to get a company off the ground. Todd Tjoelker, COO of Modustri who received his BSE from U-M in ’93, told students, “Collaboration drives innovation. So build enabled networks, cherish the people you meet, and constantly question the process.”
Stop 3: Start Garden
After leaving Founder’s, students ventured to Start Garden where CFE Board Member Rick DeVos has founded Grand Rapids’ premier startup incubator. At Start Garden, students were immersed in the world of “problem framing,” or the process of breaking down a complex problem into specific challenges that can be directly and easily solved. Start Garden’s Nobot Inc., everybody’s favorite robot companion was introduced to students as the case study for this exercise. Michigan students were tasked with presenting a specific problem that can be solved using Nobot. After 30 minutes, student teams presented their problem and a plan for Nobot to solve it to a panel of Startup Garden judges. Top prize was a private lunch with Rick DeVos. The judges were blown away by the students’ ideas. From waste reduction to helping other-abled drivers, students demonstrated lots of opportunities for Nobot. The winning team presented a proposed deployment providing specialized medical skills to countries that may not have access to doctors. Through this project, students learned the critical importance of understanding, in detail, a problem in order for the solution to be successful. A skill they can apply as entrepreneurs and innovators, and life in general.
Stop 4: GR Current and Grid70
With the GREAT group fired up about solving real-world problems, students moved on to GR Current and GRid 70 to conclude the immersion part of the day. At both locations, entrepreneurs from all industries and ages met with students to discuss their technologies and give advice on how they were able to bring their ideas to life. From an underwater drone created by college students to a random phone number generator for safe anonymous interactions off of website listings like Craigslist or Tinder, the students saw the many ways entrepreneurship takes shape. The students then broke into small groups to get a deeper understanding of how each of these startups were able to discover their problem, and leverage skills in innovating and networking to bring their solution to the market.
It also became increasingly apparent just how many startups are choosing western Michigan as the place to grow their business. Students were able to ask budding entrepreneurs what it’s like living in the area and whether there is a lot to offer young professionals, especially after coming from vibrant Ann Arbor. Across the board GREAT speakers, U-M alumni, and founders agreed that with affordable living, a thriving art and food scene, quick access to the lake, and a booming economy, Grand Rapids is ideal for students after graduation. One student commented, “I grew up in Michigan, and I never even considered coming here [Grand Rapids]. Now I know what I could have missed. Going on this trek has made a huge impact on me.”
Final Stop: Alumni Reception at Grand Rapids Brewing Company
After an exciting day of learning about the entrepreneurial resources and jobs available to students on the west side of Michigan, students, alumni, and local business owners came together to further the conversation. Michigan alumni and GR locals were thrilled to showcase for U-M students why western Michigan is becoming a model for entrepreneurial and economic success for the future. U-M freshman, Joe Saginaw, commented: “I had no idea about the opportunities that Grand Rapids had to offer! I was blown away by the innovation, resources, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem that existed on this side of the state.”
The capstone reception gave students the opportunity to practice networking skills and become further exposed to the companies and people driving innovation forward. More than 60 U-M alumni participated; including many who were on the hunt for interns or new hires for their own companies. Theresa Brown, Vice President of the U-M Alumni Club of Grand Rapids said: “GREAT was more than a day trip, it was the perfect opportunity for students to experience all Grand Rapids has to offer, and a chance for us to keep genuine talent from U-M in the State of Michigan.”
But it wasn’t just the Michigan Alumni Network that took interest in this talented group of students and their endless ideas for innovation. Grand Rapids’ News Channel 3 recognized the driven Michigan students, as well as a list of successful alumni. The news source credits the new era of entrepreneurs to Michigan’s vast availability of programs, which have been ranked by The Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the best in the nation–7th in 2015–as a Top School for Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Programs.