For the student-run Detroit Entrepreneurship Network, the city of Detroit is a hub of potential — not just for growing businesses, but also for creating relationships that span geographic and socioeconomic boundaries.
The network, known more casually as d[en], holds an annual entrepreneurship program for high school students both from the heart of Detroit and the city’s suburbs. It recruits students from 18 schools and boasted 50 participants in 2013.
Established in 2012, the program has run from mid-November through April — with two-hour student- and professionally-taught business workshops held in a Detroit workspace on a bi-weekly basis.
This year’s program will start in January, later than it has in the past, in order to align with the start of the Winter 2015 semester. To compensate for the lost time, workshops will last three hours instead of two and the students involved may consider meeting on a weekly basis for the first month.
Business junior Nick Resnick, d[en] co-president, said the program’s mission is two-pronged. The first part, he said, is giving students the entrepreneurial toolkit to improve their communities. The second part goes beyond business acumen to addressing diversity awareness.
“We want to promote dialogue and collaboration between people of different backgrounds, different races, socioeconomic situations, everything like that,” Resnick said.
“We don’t want to just focus on kids from Detroit. We want to get high school students from Detroit, along with across the suburbs, and bring them to these workshops and have them work with people that they would otherwise never talk to and never get the pleasure of meeting,” he said.
Aside from the workshops, Resnick said students also split into teams and develop products that they pitch to a panel of professional mentors.
Ultimately, one team wins the “competition,” earning a $400 prize. How the winners use the money is up to their discretion.
Last year’s program had two winners. One winning team designed a product called Graffiti Gowns, medical gowns that can be drawn on, as a way to engage younger children in hospital environments.
Resnick said this team used some of its prize money to consult with a patent lawyer and try to patent a washable material for the gowns.
“The end goal, really, is to give what we envision the promising team from our workshop money so that they can continue to have resources to continue this work,” he said. “We just want to see these students empowered to go on their own.”
Resnick added that even those who do not win funding are given the tools to succeed. Not all projects set out to create products — others include valuable services, such as local tutoring or community service organizations.
Once the program ends, Resnick said many of the projects go on to be implemented, and participants stay in touch with their fellow students and mentors through Facebook groups and over e-mail.
One example is LSA sophomore Monica Mungarwadi, who was a student in the program during her senior year of high school and is now a member of d[en]. Her group project was called the Middle School Initiative, which would recruit students from middle schools to take part in a diversity education program centered on race and ethnicity.
The initiative was successfully launched last year in her hometown of Farmington Hills. She said the skills she learned in the d[en] program were invaluable in getting the Middle School Initiative going.
“One of the first things that I learned was writing a business model,” she said. “I had never even heard what a business model was. That helped a lot because it helped us structure our organization: what our main goal was, what our mission statement was, how much money we wanted to put towards our program, how to get the funding that we needed.”
Tom Frank, executive director of the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship, who was a guest judge at last year’s concluding d[en] competition, said a couple of teams even sought his mentorship after the program came to an end. He happily extended it and said he was impressed by the program overall.
“Two of these high school teams presented the best startup ideas that I had seen all year, and one of them I would have invested my personal money in if that was not completely outside of our conflict of interest,” Frank said, referring to Graffiti Gowns.
Frank said high school students yield innovations that go beyond the sometimes-cookie cutter version of “entrepreneurship” that is often prevalent at the university level, which tends to focus on tech startups.
“People solve problems that reflect the world that they live in, and the problems that we were presented by the d[en] students were really cool to me because they came from a completely fresh perspective,” he said.
Frank said the sentiment was also visible recently at the CFE’s Urban Entrepreneurship Initiative Symposium, where, he said, many Detroit natives were present. The initiative encourages sustainable business methods for solving important urban issues and was founded by David Tarver, a lecturer at the College of Engineering and the CFE.
“The things that they cared about around financing are not the same things that somebody who’s commercializing a laser in one of our research labs cares about,” Frank said. “So there again, you get the benefit of this feedback from the community: ‘Don’t set up a venture capital storefront … show me how I can finance the next phase of growth so I can manufacture this thing I’ve created.’ ”
Tarver also taught a d[en] workshop last year, which provided an overview of methodologies for growing a business. This is one of his areas of expertise — he has successfully developed numerous profitable businesses, namely Telecom Analysis Systems, which he started in his basement with two friends and ultimately sold for $30 million.
Echoing Frank’s testimony, he said the program was a great avenue for younger students to pursue their entrepreneurial interests in an engaging way while also encouraging diversity.
Tarver grew up in Flint and said his equivalent outlet for exploring his academic curiosities was the city-wide science fair, which gave him a basic exposure to science, the scientific method and how to apply those concepts in a somewhat competitive manner.
“I had some good early experiences, which is why I feel that it’s not just a nicety, it’s an imperative that students continue to get those kinds of experiences,” he said. “This is one avenue whereby Detroit area students can start to get this familiarity with not only entrepreneurship, but also with technical work and STEM.”
Tarver added that exposure to a diverse set of backgrounds among the program’s participants is important, but so is exposure to University students.
This is something that Resnick stressed as a focal point of the program. He said the ongoing relationships between University students and the high school students participating in d[en] has given the younger kids confidence, and has erased for many the idea that they might not “belong” at a school like Michigan. Resnick said it’s about making college attainable.
“We recognized about halfway through my freshman year in the program that we can’t just teach the high school students entrepreneurship,” Resnick said. “While that was our main goal, and that continues to be our main mission, there needs to be professional and personal growth as well.”
With this in mind, the organization instituted an ACT/SAT prep branch of the program, in addition to having University students offer to read the students’ college application essays.
“In order to really bring kids from inner-city Detroit up to speed with the resources that suburban kids have, it’s going to take more than what we did in all honesty,” Resnick added. “But we’re up to the challenge.”
Facing that challenge consistently over the course of the program, he said, is what sets d[en] apart from other similar ventures in Detroit.
“We have gained the trust of these students in Detroit,” he said. “A lot of people have come into Detroit and help the city, and then (they) do something and leave and never come back. Because of that, students in Detroit are very apprehensive about people trying to come in and do work.”
“But every year, we have a competitive process to add people to our d[en] team here, and we only take people that we see genuinely care and have a genuine interest in Detroit. And through that, you can see that the students trust us; they believe that we want to help them. And that is something that honestly, I have not seen another group … achieve.”