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The Silicon Mitten: Michigan’s changing entrepreneurial culture

Photo illustration by Ruby Wallau/Daily Buy this photo

By K.C. Wassman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 6, 2014

It’s gone viral. It’s all across campus. It’s not an app, but in recent years, it’s a movement buzzing with energy all across phone screens, Facebook profiles, posting walls. And it’s rapidly evolving.

Entrepreneurship. These days, it’s a buzzword heard across the University, from MPowered events to student startups. Entrepreneurial efforts abound us on campus, but its role at the University is hard to define. If it can be defined by one trait, it’s the ongoing process of change.

“Change” is a fitting definition for the entrepreneurial climate on campus — with an increased focus on the topic over the last year and a half alone. In 2013, there have been two hackathons, a “Month of Entrepreneurship” and a newly created entrepreneurial adviser position. With another hackathon rapidly approaching and the Central Student Government’s Commission for Entrepreneurship renewed for another semester, it seems last year’s change is only the beginning.

The rising ‘rock stars of the world’

You may be hearing more about entrepreneurship on campus, but it’s hardly a new concept. It’s a spirit politicians say America was built on, and the increase in entrepreneurship on campus mirrors a national trend. According to a 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report on the United States, total entrepreneurial activity is at its highest level since 1999.

Though it’s hard to determine exactly when this increasing trend toward entrepreneurship started, Stewart Thornhill, executive director of the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies, believes it comes from a changing business model in the United States.

“The current generation of students — whether they’re undergraduate or graduate students — grew up in the period of time when there was a real loss of faith in the long-term, big-company employment model that their parents and their parents’ parents had gone through,” Thornhill said. “There were all these huge employers which had previously been seen as very stable forms of employment … now all (of a) sudden (they) are not so stable anymore. Your job could literally disappear overnight.”

Apart from the changing business model, Thornhill also cited increased media coverage, a new social culture and the desire for people to control their own destiny as reasons for the growth in entrepreneurship in the United States, and consequently, on campus. Thornhill said “Shark Tank” — an ABC television show where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to receive funding from investors — is a prime example of how entrepreneurship is infiltrating popular culture.

“The entrepreneurs are now the rock stars of the world,” Thornhill said. “They’re on TV programs and magazine covers. So you’ve got this whole sexiness thing that 20 years ago wasn’t really associated with starting your own business.”

Indeed, there are many well known entrepreneurial “rock stars” nowadays, Mark Zuckerberg being one of the most famous. Zuckerberg started Facebook in his early 20s while a student at Harvard University, and has since turned his dorm-room project into a multi-billion dollar empire — increasing his personal net worth to $19 billion in the process, according to Forbes. Engineering junior Chris O’Neil serves as the current president of MPowered, an active student entrepreneurial group on campus that seeks to unite and enhance student startup culture. O’Neil said during his time at the University, there has been an increase in student entrepreneurial involvement and believes it can partially be attributed to a “Mark Zuckerberg effect.”

“It’s definitely more known than it used to be,” O’Neil said. “Everybody knows that a couple of kids that went to Stanford started Snapchat, and just got offered $3 billion. … Whether you’re interested in entrepreneurship or not, you’re going to know about that story. It builds this awareness of entrepreneurship and you can get people thinking.”

A student movement

Thomas Zurbuchen, now the senior adviser for entrepreneurial education, has spearheaded entrepreneurship on campus during his time at the University. In 2008, he started the Center for Entrepreneurship, a resource hub for campus startups and students interested in created new businesses. While originally exclusive to engineering students, the Center has since expanded its program availability to most students at the University.
Zurbuchen said the increase in entrepreneurial opportunities from the University initially came as a result of increased student demand, adding that he founded the Center for Entrepreneurship for the students — not for institutional prestige.