New entrepreneurship initiative virtually connects students across cultures

Sunday, November 26, 2017 - 4:40pm

The William Davidson Institute — a nonprofit research organization which provides support to low- and middle-income countries — is launching a virtual, cross-cultural entrepreneurship program next year for University of Michigan undergraduates from the Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn campuses.

The program, Michigan Initiative for Global Action Through Entrepreneurship, will connect University students with students from universities in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the University Record. Participating schools include the FEPS Business Incubator at Cairo University in Egypt and Benghazi Youth for Technology and Entrepreneurship, among others.

Students will work together to identify social problems such as public health, sustainability and assisting locals in business operations. According to Barbara Peitsch, the M2GATE’s senior lead program adviser, some primary ME/NA issues which teams may address include youth unemployment, women’s rights, environmental problems and recycling.

The initiative will consist of three sessions each lasting eight weeks and include approximately 200 students. The sessions will begin in January, April and May, respectively.  

During the sessions, teams of six will each address their social issue in the ME/NA region. They will create a three to five minute video to pitch their ideas. At the end, teams’ proposals will be entered in a competition. The winning ME/NA-based team members will have the opportunity to travel to Ann Arbor to meet their University-based counterparts, meet with professors and pitch their proposal to an expert panel.

The initiative is described as a “virtual exchange” program, highlighting its intent to connect young people across cultures using technology.

According to the WDI website, the program will use “technology to empower young people from different cultures to participate in a kind of global classroom, where they regularly exchange ideas, work on projects together, and develop relationships built on mutual respect.’”

The program will utilize online learning modules, tutorials and assignments, as well online communication and collaboration with teammates, mentors, instructors and program managers.

Amy Gillett, vice president of Education Initiative at WDI, highlighted the necessary transition to virtual partnerships taking place across the world.

“Increasingly in today’s business environment, people are working virtually,” Gillett said. “They usually don’t have the luxury to meet in person to work on something together, so being able to collaborate virtually is a very neat skill and more and more in demand in the workplace.”

Pietsch explained M2GATE’s cross-cultural nature is integral to the program, as it aims to enhance friendly, productive and efficient collaboration among students from other countries.

“I think it’s very important in this day and age and going forward to learn how to work on multicultural change,” Pietsch said. “This is going to give students on both sides the opportunity to work on a concrete project while taking into consideration perspectives that they haven’t had to consider before.”

Applications for the program close Dec. 1, and several students have already submitted their applications — including Engineering senior Akihiro Ota.

“I hope to form relationships with like-minded people to contribute to social uplift,” Ota said. “I also hope to broaden my world view (sic) and gain an understanding of how social issues in other countries compare to those in the U.S. I hope, by working with those from other countries, to find strategies that can be similarly be used in the U.S. to improve the world around me.”

Gillett is confident M2GATE will be valuable in various ways to its participants.

“I think the Michigan students will gain tremendously from participating in this project, from the skill, relationship, and resume building,” Gillett said. “We think that friendships and new businesses will form, but at the very least, people will gain greater cultural insight and experience collaborating virtually.”