In a previous column (Find your inner entrepreneur, 1/25/2011) I encouraged students to think about how they can take advantage of the incredible resources the University has to offer. Only a few hours after print, I received an e-mail from a member of the student entrepreneurial organization MPowered: “If you’re serious about what you wrote, come meet us at 3 p.m. tomorrow.”

It became apparent that MPowered’s vision aligns with everything I celebrated in that column. I assumed that their main focus was on birthing high-growth businesses. I had no idea that they promote the mindset that makes them and other high-impact endeavors possible. I kept interrupting the conversation — “Guys, you’re sure you believe that community organizers, activists and non-profits can also be entrepreneurial, right?” And they would respond: “As long as they do something about it — as long as they don’t simply talk about it — then yes.”

Then they told me about eRes, their new living-learning community in Mojo, which aims to instill the entrepreneurial mindset in students. They work on actual, real problems that they define based on their interests. Students come from diverse disciplines, so engineers will work with philosophy majors, Business students with English majors, and so on. The program doesn’t verbally “teach” them the entrepreneurial mindset. Rather, it provides a unique environment for students to develop and practice it through hands-on experience followed by reflection.

Most students may not know that they themselves are entrepreneurial or even that they want to be. We want to change that. While discussing this, we quickly realized that it would have been highly hypocritical for us to merely sit and chat. The seed was planted for 1000 Voices: A grassroots, student-led initiative to encourage entrepreneurial education at the University.

National figures from University President Mary Sue Coleman to President Barack Obama have endorsed entrepreneurial education. The stars are aligned. 1000 Voices isn’t merely a petition. It’s a movement.

Phase one: Gain support for entrepreneurial communities, like eRes. Give access and incentives for LSA students to take classes that provide vital project management experience — classes that allow them to apply what they learn in a real world context. The Center for Entrepreneurship incentivizes Engineering students to take these types of classes. LSA should do the same. While the first phase targets LSA, its underlying concept affects all students. Phases two, three and four of entrepreneurial education will be shaped by the dialogue created from this initial phase.

Some say the entrepreneurial mindset is inborn, that it can’t be taught. They’re wrong.

If that were true, MPowered wouldn’t exist. If that were true, universities across the world wouldn’t be establishing entrepreneurial hubs. If that were true, more than 3,000 students wouldn’t have submitted pitches last year to the 1000 Pitches campaign. Clearly, culture and environment affect how entrepreneurial students become. Clearly, the entrepreneurial mindset can be developed. Note: It should be practiced through direct experience, not from a textbook or from a chalkboard. It thrives in an environment that provides opportunities and incentives to undergo direct experience. 1000 Voices will show our immense desire for such an environment.

Students, here is how you can help. Sign the petition at 1kv.org. But don’t stop there. Reflect on your educational experience. Ask yourself: What type of opportunities would you like to see? What does entrepreneurial education look like to you? Faculty, alumni and anyone interested need to participate in the discussion.

To me, entrepreneurial education aspires to develop innovative self-starters with strong character. Students will analyze books, manage projects and engage in productive social activities. This way, students will learn how to approach problems differently, execute their solutions and build strong, sustainable relationships.

It’s a widely held notion that our education model is outdated. In our parents’ generation, a degree guaranteed a job. Not anymore. We live in an age of personal branding, where credentials — what school you attended and what you majored in — is less important than the value of your skills and your ability to work in groups.

I quote Coleman: “The mission of the University … (is to develop) leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” And I quote our 1000 Voices campaign: “We call for an environment conducive to developing the entrepreneurial mindset, where students actively acquire their education instead of passively receive it.”

At the very least, 1000 Voices will respond to accusations of apathy. Bob Herbert, New York Times columnist, lambasted college students in a recent column, stating, “Perhaps more now than ever, the point of the college experience is to have a good time and walk away with a valuable credential after putting in the least effort possible.”

Well, Mr. Herbert, more than 1,000 people at the University are about to say otherwise.

Erik Torenberg can be reached at erikto@umich.edu.

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