Igniting Entrepreneurship on Michigan’s campus

The University of Michigan has invested countless hours and millions of dollars to build the number three ranked entrepreneurial program in the country. Yet our ability to educate successful entrepreneurs is still in infancy stages. Why?

The term entrepreneurship is fluid: it changes daily and has 101 different definitions depending on who you ask and what day of the week it is. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what entrepreneurship is, and because of this, anyone can claim to be an entrepreneur. Tom Frank, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship, recently told me that his biggest issue with entrepreneurship education across the country is that faculty will teach “entrepreneurship” when they have no qualifications or experience to do so. Would we allow a medical professor to teach neurosurgery if he or she had never operated on a brain before? Can we trust a political science professor to explain the intricacies of polling data without experience or without a PhD in political science?

One learns the qualities of entrepreneurship through experience. Failure, success and hours and hours T of focus on a singular vision shape true entrepreneurs. As President of MPowered, I personally define entrepreneurship as the ability to create something out of nothing. A successful entrepreneur begins with a seed of an idea and navigates through a tumultuous and ever-changing ecosystem to develop that idea into a reality. Along the way, she must impassion her colleagues, friends and potential investors to truly believe in her idea and the underlying principles that drive her to success.

Creating a successful company takes years of work and requires sacrifices in almost every sector of one’s life. 100-hour work weeks are the norm. Yet, students expect to be able to create a company while also balancing school, social lives and other student organizations. On top of that, every single student at the University of Michigan is still developing his or her social skills, time management skills and learning how to manage personal finances. Is it feasible to add developing networking skills and how to manage company finances?

It is extremely difficult to incentivize qualified entrepreneurs to leave the bubble that is Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley or Silicon Beach to come to Ann Arbor to teach entrepreneurial skills. Many times this issue is exacerbated by the fact that credibly defining entrepreneurship with the same level of substance as a field like neuroscience or political science is extremely challenging. It is a ‘Catch 22’. Recruiting top entrepreneurs is challenging because many do not know what skills they can teach due to the lack of a clear definition. But at the same time, this definition cannot be developed because there are not enough qualified individuals teaching entrepreneurship.

Moreover, Michigan’s entrepreneurial community is siloed. Given the diverse resources, there should be more more collaboration between schools and entrepreneurial programs. With separate communication channels, many divided initiatives and independent audiences, many organizations optimize for their success independently, as opposed to with the larger community.

Herein lies the issue. Not one individual piece, but a host of points leads to a constant trial and error development of how to teach entrepreneurship.

What can be done? First, the different schools at the University of Michigan must continue to incentivize top entrepreneurs from San Francisco, New York and Chicago to teach entrepreneurship here. This includes providing these entrepreneurs faculty status, and unique incentive structures based on companies they advise and invest in. Additionally, we must lose the stigma that a student studying entrepreneurship is taking the ‘easy path’ or is receiving a ‘second class’ degree. Finally, the future of entrepreneurship will continue to hinge on the success of student organizations. They teach students entrepreneurial skills with a safety net that allows them to fail. Faculty must continue to fuel the creation of new entrepreneurial organizations and assist them in creating successful programs for the long-term success of entrepreneurship on campus.

We are the number three entrepreneurial school in the country. That is incredible. But in the spirit of the University of Michigan and entrepreneurship, we should continue to strive to be the best in the country at fueling innovation on our campus and in our students.

Ilan Siegel is a junior studying Public Policy at the Ford School with a focus on religion’s influence on world politics. He is currently President of MPowered and is the founder of IgniteIt and PowerCast — MPowered’s first ever Podcast.