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The University of Michigan was ranked among the nation’s top three schools for undergraduate entrepreneurship opportunities and sixth for graduate entrepreneurship by The Princeton Review in a November release. Only Babson University in Massachusetts and Brigham Young University in Utah surpassed the University on the undergraduate list.
The annual rankings take into consideration business and entrepreneurship academic programs available to students, student-to-faculty ratio, alumni entrepreneurship ventures, student-led programs and community support for entrepreneurial ventures.
Formal entrepreneurship education opportunities at the University date back to 1999 with the creation of the Zell Lurie Institute, an entrepreneurship and venture capital-focused institute housed at the Ross School of Business.
In 2015, the Zell Family Foundation donated $60 million to the Zell Lurie Institute.
Oscar Ybarra, the director of Innovate Blue — the University-run center for 15 entrepreneurship programs — said the creation of a minor in entrepreneurship, which was founded in winter 2014, has empowered students from all academic backgrounds to learn about starting small businesses.
“Since the introduction of the campus-wide minor, students from all schools and colleges can access new hands-on courses, creating more opportunities to connect, network and build successful entrepreneurial teams pulling from a variety of disciplines,” Ybarra said in a press release. “The University embraces entrepreneurship from all angles because the greater diversity in programming and disciplines in entrepreneurship, the greater UM’s contributions can be to the state and to the nation.”
In addition to the academic resources, many students, including Business junior Erin Johnson, the president of OptiMize, cited community engagement in student-led entrepreneurship organizations — which are a significant part of The Princeton Review’s ranking methodology — as valuable to the development of student innovations.
OptiMize is a community for students to help address social issues through entrepreneurial ventures, Johnson said. The program offers mentorship opportunities with community business leaders, student-led discussion groups and workshops.
“Mentorship and the massive alumni network are very important to us,” Johnson said. “For our mentorship programs, the people who collaborate with OptiMize groups tend to be local business leaders and alumni who want to help. Some of our best resources come from an array of sources. For example, we have worked with people from Zingerman’s to teach us vision and leadership skills. But what is probably the best thing about being in the area and having access to the alumni network is that if you are interested in something, there’s a good chance that someone from Michigan has been involved in that field.”
One such connection, Johnson said, was the Detroit-based Michigan Urban Farming Initiative. The initiative, which was started by former OptiMize members, works to provide Detroit locals with fresh produce to address the problems associated with urban food deserts.
“Just last week, the team received $2 million of funding for an ‘agrihood,’ which is essentially an urban farm in a Detroit neighborhood — the first of its kind in America,” Johnson said.
The success of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, she added, also points to the potential for student success in entrepreneurship from the University.
“It’s cool because they, like every other OptiMize group, began with two-to-three thousand dollars in funding, and now they are receiving millions of dollars to continue the work that they began here at the University,” Johnson said. “And that, to me, is the most inspiring part of OptiMize — that it’s not just something that happens when you’re at the University, it’s something that you start here and use to start to build your lives.”
Business junior Danny Sheridan said he had experienced academic and community support with his own entrepreneurial venture, Woodside Distributors, which is a national distribution company for home improvement, automotive, sporting and other goods.
“The way that I was able to best take advantage of the entrepreneurial opportunities during my time here has not really been through the classes but by meeting with the people that are here,” Sheridan said. “It was by meeting with faculty and other students and having engaging conversations about our interests, and going from there.”
In April, Sheridan and his business partners won “The Startup,” a University-sponsored competition funded and run by the Center for Entrepreneurship. The CFE, which was created in 2008, began as an initiative at the College of Engineering, but has since expanded to offer entrepreneurship education for students in all colleges.
The Woodside Distributors team took home a grand prize of $15,000, which Sheridan used to help the company’s growth.
“That money helped us hire staff,” Sheridan said. “Now we have a team of 12 people, and has enabled us to de-risk some of our startup capital. And I think that the 12 University of Michigan students who have jobs would be very appreciative of that money.”
Over time, Sheridan said, this money has also enabled significant growth. From 2015 to 2016, Woodside Distributors financially grew from $2 million to $3.5 million.
However, it was not just the University’s participation in entrepreneurship that enabled Woodside Distributors to succeed. Sheridan said support from the Ann Arbor business community proved to be among the greatest assets in the development of their business model.
Through Sheridan’s mentor, Adrian Fortino, a partner at the Mercury Fund, a venture capital firm in based out of Texas with offices in Ann Arbor, the team at Woodside Distributors was able to meet with people at Nutshell, a customer resource management firm, and learn from experts in their field.
“The people at Nutshell taught us how to use their software, which would have probably cost a lot for other people, but because we are Michigan students, it was no big deal; Adrian Fortino was able to hook us up,” Sheridan said.