A silver plaque in the center of the image displays a picture of a young Walter E. Wilson, and there is a Volvo Baja SAE project car trophy in the bottom left corner.
A plaque is displayed of Walter E. Wilson at the Wilson Student Project Center on Michigan’s North Campus. Jenna Hickey/Daily. Buy this photo.

Each semester, hundreds of hopeful first- and second-year students from all majors undergo a grueling recruitment process to join one of the Ross School of Business’s most prestigious — yet exclusive — student organizations. Most of these hopefuls will be denied access to these clubs.

The purpose of this article, however, is not to denigrate business groups for their elitist reputation. They likely have well-rehearsed justifications for their infamous selection processes: maintaining their prestigious reputation, providing one-to-one mentorship opportunities and budget constraints. Instead, the goal of this article is to highlight a more promising yet often overlooked alternative to business clubs at the University of Michigan. This alternative? A hub for innovation where students can develop leadership skills, learn about business in an entrepreneurial context and so much more. In fact, it’s only one (mildly crowded) bus ride away.

It’s called the Wilson Center.

With close to 30 entirely student-led project teams, the $10 million Wilson Student Team Project Center is one of the largest engineering team centers in the United States. Each semester, hundreds of engineers line up at Festifall and Northfest eager to learn from the best and brightest in STEM and work on innovative projects. Students quickly discover that if they show up with a sense of enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, they will be welcomed with open arms into one of these inclusive communities — a stark contrast to the cutthroat culture pervasive in the BBA clubs’ recruitment cycle.

Early in my sophomore year, I fondly remember being contacted by a couple of engineers who somehow got their hands on a boat hull from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics and were in dire need of someone to manage their finances. I came to the first meeting expecting an interview (yes, I wore a suit). However, instead of being grilled on case studies and my professional qualifications, they only cared that I possessed ambition and unfettered curiosity. Within minutes, I was invited to join the team and graciously accepted their offer. Thus began the best three-year learning opportunity of my life.

The team I co-founded was the University of Michigan Electric Boat, now one of the largest project teams at the University. In less than three years, we went from a team of about five members to well over 50, took second place in our debut race at the national PEP competition and secured sponsorships from more than 30 companies (including several Fortune 500s). And yet, we are not an anomaly on this campus. The Wilson Center is filled with exceptional, world-renowned teams like Michigan Solar Car, MRacing and MASA, among many others.

Through this experience, I discovered that deeply-rooted misconceptions exist about the nature of project teams. Many believe these teams only provide experience for engineers. This could not be further from the truth.

I’ve had the chance to advise teams in the Wilson Center and at other universities on how to build their business capabilities. To grow a team like UMEB, or any other project team, you need students from all disciplines. Yes, you need world-class engineers to pursue ideas that push the boundaries of innovation; however, without non-engineers, their potential is limited. They need the perspective and skillsets of non-STEM students to elevate their impact and scale. Regardless of what you study, engineering project teams have a place for you.

Interested in writing, marketing or political science? Great! You can help shape the mission of a team, craft a team identity or brand and partner with news companies.

Interested in business, economics or computer science? Boy oh boy, can you make an impact. You can pitch executives to raise funds, manage team logistics, design a website and craft a business case for sustainability.

Often, engineering leaders recognize the need to diversify their teams, yet they struggle to do so. That is precisely why they need someone without an engineering background. They need help from students in LSA, the Business School or any of the other U-M schools. Engineers need motivated peers to manage the team’s budget, sponsor relations and marketing so they can keep playing with their toys while someone else finds the money to pay for them.

Engineering project teams have carefully crafted a culture of action-based learning, personal growth and inclusivity. For most (if not all) teams, you will not be charged membership fees and will often travel and attend events that are fully paid for by generous sponsors. So, instead of following the trend of prioritizing value extraction over creation that has gripped the U.S.’s best business schools, consider building something groundbreaking that alters the course of our future.

My advice to you: If you want to pursue a career in consulting, finance or really any profession, dare to be different. Hundreds of students are applying for jobs with business clubs or professional fraternities on their resumes. How many applicants can say they launched a rocket, rode on an electric motorcycle on the Isle of Man, raced an electric boat in Monaco or drove a solar car across the Australian Outback?

In the fleeting moments between case studies and suit alterations, take a moment to consider another way to leave a legacy at the University. Student project teams are rife with growth opportunities. Perhaps it’s time to seize the moment and work on something you can be proud of.

Mitchell Davidson is a Business Senior and can be reached at mitdavid@umich.edu.