In her tenure as University President, Mary Sue Coleman has championed entrepreneurial spirit both on campus and off.
Coleman has stressed the importance of innovation and student entrepreneurship, especially in recent years, and her efforts have seen great returns. The University’s knack for business has put Ann Arbor on the map as a hub of creativity and innovation, now being compared to other innovative areas like Silicon Valley.
Under Coleman’s leadership, the College of Engineering pioneered the Center for Entrepreneurship, which was established in 2008 to pool the University’s resources and experienced faculty to guide young entrepreneurs. Since its inception, the CFE has launched a number of entrepreneurship-focused courses, in addition to co-managing the TechArb student startup incubator.
In a March speech in San Diego, Coleman said entrepreneurship empowers young people to navigate the ever-changing job market — a quality the University hopes to provide to its students.
“We have reimagined our future,” Coleman said. “Entrepreneurship, disruptive innovation, technology virtualization and collaboration is making it happen now.”
In March, the University implemented its newest program, Innovate Blue, which works with a host of University, local and commercial partners to power the proliferation of student entrepreneurial spirit in the greater community. Among these partners are the CFE, TechArb and Ann Arbor SPARK.
Coleman also helped create a University partnership with the city of Ann Arbor called Ann Arbor SPARK, a service that “drives the development of innovative technology startups.” The partnership has garnered $1.4 billion in new investments in Ann Arbor, and earned Coleman the Institutional Leadership Award from the International Economic Development Council March 27.
At the ceremony, IEDC chairman Paul Krutko, CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK, presented Coleman with the award and commended her efforts to promote development.
“Mary Sue Coleman is a proven leader who is creating economic opportunity in Michigan,” he said.
This sentiment is one that is echoed by all of those who have worked to widen the scope, impact and application of student entrepreneurship at the University.
CFE Executive Director Tom Frank said the combined passion for innovation displayed by Coleman and Dean of Engineering Dave Munson compelled him to move from his home in Silicon Valley in the summer of 2013 and accept the offer to work in the CFE.
Frank identified the CFE’s three main objectives: establishing undergraduate entrepreneurship programs, running aggressive commercialization training programs like M-TRAC — which merges transportation innovations created at the University into the auto industry— and pushing community efforts to sponsor student startups. He said Coleman has been a strong proponent of all of these goals.
“In my limited tenure, I can tell you that I’ve had the privilege of watching her speak on a number of occasions and the way that she evangelizes the importance of entrepreneurship has been a true catalyst for not only student organizations, but for the external strategic partners that I look for to give our programs the rocket fuel they need to get to the next level,” he said.
Engineering Prof. Thomas Zurbuchen, Innovate Blue’s senior counselor for entrepreneurial education, said this type of leadership was essential to the founding of Innovate Blue, which will tap into University, local and national resources to unite entrepreneurship education and practice in the real world.
“It was clear that Engineering, Business and LSA started supporting that,” Zurbuchen said. “So what she then did was basically say, ‘Okay, let’s now push the button and go do it.’ So she was a really critical part of that campus life engagement of entrepreneurship. I credit her tremendously for that.”
The University unveiled the new program at South by Southwest, a 10-day festival in Austin, Texas that promotes innovation, music, technology and film. Its development may have been driven by the administration, but Zurbuchen said a lot of time, effort and ideas came from student organizations as well.
Innovate Blue is the first program of its kind in that it has paired with student organizations and outside partners to drive the entrepreneurship curriculum.
One of these groups is MPowered, whose goal is to simply “expose students to entrepreneurship.”
Engineering senior Chris O’Neil, the outgoing president of MPowered, said the University has been a key proponent of the organization’s success, fostering entrepreneurial spirit but staying hands-off enough to let students independently build “high-power, high-energy” events on campus.
O’Neill said SpringFest was an event that reflected students’ ability to innovate — particularly with the inclusion of the MPowered-sponsored “MTank.” Modeled after ABC’s “Shark Tank,” the event allowed student entrepreneurs to present their startup ideas to a panel of local venture capitalists.
O’Neil added that an event like this is indicative of the growth of student interest in entrepreneurship at the University.
“Over the past seven years or so, MPowered and the Center for Entrepreneurship have started to see a lot more people interested in entrepreneurship, see a lot more people taking risks and trying something new,” he said. “Honestly, a lot of them fail, but that’s a part of growth and the University is a really good place to do that — to fail and have the support of your peers and the support of the administration.”
There is still a greater need to bridge the gap between University students, the administration and the Ann Arbor community, O’Neil said. However, with administrative bodies like the CFE, groups like MPowered and curricular programs like Innovate Blue, this goal is in sight, but takes time.
Zurbuchen and Frank agreed with this sentiment, adding that entrepreneurship at a University level has the potential to affect the greater environment — as evidenced by Ann Arbor SPARK or M-TRAC.
Zurbuchen said part of effecting this change has to do with interdisciplinary interaction, something that the budding entrepreneurial community on campus, coupled with the efforts of Innovate Blue and the CFE, strives to achieve. Overall, he said, entrepreneurship is a value life skill for all students to acquire.
“If I ask any employer today, ‘What are you looking for in a future employee?’ what they will say is, ‘Leadership and an open mindset.’ So the ability to see what can be done, but turn these ideas into action,” Zurbuchen said.
Coleman, he said, has been essential to this growth.
“Mary Sue was the most important cheerleader for entrepreneurship and basically has in many ways grown and celebrated in a direct fashion what entrepreneurship is about,” he said.
“In almost any organization, when the leader stands up and says, ‘This is important,’ that’s what makes the troops take note,” Frank added.
As the leader of this University, Coleman has derived a comfortable medium from this statement — ask what Michigan can do for you, and in return, pay it forward.