By Steven Assarian, Business Librarian, Grand Rapids Public Library
Entrepreneurship seems inherent, as in something you either have a talent for or you do not. There is a mythic quality to it, especially when you see its end results.
However, entrepreneurship is not magic; it is a set of skills, and a way of thinking about those skills. It is something than can be taught, and in a heartening trend here among Michigan’s universities, it is being taught at the college and university level.
Our schools engage this subject in various ways. For example, Kettering University in Flint, in partnership with the Kauffman Foundation, has implemented entrepreneurship education across its entire curriculum, including its Liberal Studies, Physics, and Computer Science departments. The University of Michigan’s entrepreneurship master’s program includes startup treks to Boston, New York, and the Bay Area for the purpose of honing student skills in the nation’s top startup environments.
One of the rising stars among these programs is Wayne State University’s Blackstone Launchpad. Finding its start as a program at the University of Florida, the program found excellent soil to grow in Midtown Detroit in 2010. Since then, 600 members of the Wayne community have received mentoring, resulting in 90 business models and 25 businesses that currently generate revenue. The program offers not only classes and seminars, but also the possibility of significant funding through the Warrior Fund pre-seed startup fund. In addition to their aid to Wayne’s student community, BLP was host to an Algerian entrepreneur who hopes to create an e-commerce system in his home country using cellular phones and mobile networks.
What Wayne State has created here, and this is most important, is a start-up community: a place where people can come together, driven by their own ideas, and share their expertise with others. Energy goes around, knowledge is shared, and chances of success are increased in such a community.
When we hear about start-up incubators in the news, often we will hear about tech: communities like Y-Combinator or the Cambridge Innovation Center, places that are hoping for the next Facebook. But this is a narrow view of what entrepreneurship can do. Any student at Wayne can enroll regardless of where their entrepreneurial dreams may lead. This is extremely important, for all students can benefit from an entrepreneurial education.
Kelly Guillory is an artist in Wayne’s BFA program who has utilized her education at BLP to great effect. She has even helped teach other artists on how to be more savvy about the business side of their profession, organizing a BLP-sponsored seminar entitled the Art of Business.
The business idea that BLP has helped her craft is a graphic novel called Blood Money: the Road to Detroit. Crowdfunded, like one particular Detroit icon, the comic is currently at the press with hopes of a release date of August 24th. You can check out the comic here. She describes it as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ meets the ‘Sopranos.’
Kelly began her art career under the tutelage of Edgar Tadeo, thanks to the Image/Top Cow comic book online forums, where she posted art and received feedback from Tadeo as well as other artists. She moved away from comics for a few years, but was inspired by the increased respect of comics as fine art, as well as the hybrid comic/painting career of James Jean. She has been a professional painter since 2010. Current favorite comics include Fables and Fathom.
To Ms. Guillory, the need for entrepreneurship education was readily apparent after a particularly bad festival, where she was the only participant and lost $400 as a result. This, of course, is a great deal of money for any entrepreneur just starting out. She said: “I realized that if I kept making mistakes like that I wouldn’t be able to paint.”
She was encouraged to seek out BLP by Wayne’s Dean of Student Life, David Strauss, who took a great interest in Guillory’s art, and encouraged her to pursue it professionally. The comic itself has been in the works since 2009, when Guillory and her co-writer, Jamie Acocella, began writing its script.
As a crowdfunded project, Blood Money raised $700 in 17 days on Indiegogo, far above their initial needs. As a native of both Detroit and Houston, Texas, Guillory understood the need for local support that has led to their crowdfunded success. In Detroit, she said, people really want you to succeed, and the art community itself is supportive too. With this in mind, Guillory came to the project armed with a comprehensive plan she crafted with BLP:
“Our planning consisted of starting up our project by generating some income through t-shirts and small products. Then we worked our way up with art shows and art projects that I’m creating under our collective [the Ashur Collective]. Only then did we announce the comic book, because if we don’t do these things before, no one is going to care what you’re doing for the bigger project that you’ve got coming next. We worked it up in steps, and once we announced the comic project it all came together.”
BLP did not just teach Ms. Guillory planning, however. Its advisers also teach an entrepreneur how to pitch their product effectively. This knowledge, of course, imparts confidence, and confidence sells.
“They get you into a sort of ‘pitch-mode,’ or selling your idea in the shortest amount of time possible, and really making it work in as few sentences as you can. When I was filling out the Indigogo description, I was thinking ‘Wow, all this pitch stuff that I’ve been taught, this is it and I’m making my pitch to the Internet, in images, video, text, etc.”
At BLP, education is defined by a mentor-mentee relationship. Her mentors, Aubrey Agee II and Cynthia Finger-Hoffman, are both entrepreneurs themselves; Mr. Agee is the co-founder and CEO of a Wayne State tech transfer success, V-Power, Inc., which developed a piezoelectric device for use in car sensors, and Ms. Finger-Hoffman is a serial entrepreneur in sectors as varied as child care, coffee, and manufacturing. Both Kelly’s advisors were instrumental in the crafting of her business plan, as well as advising her on the comic project itself (Agee is a comics fan, and Finger-Hoffman has experience in the museum gallery realm.) They also took her and other students to pitch competitions to help hone their presentation skills, such as Entrepreneur U at Walsh Business College, another Blackstone program in Michigan.
Another excellent opportunity for BLP students to learn is the Warrior Fund, a startup capital fund that awards grants, not loans, through a pitch competition. Students have a chance to prepare pitches beforehand, and to receive feedback from BLP staff, including Executive Director Bill Volz. Pitches are thoroughly critiqued, and if the pitch is successful, Warrior Fund will grant $5,000 the entrepreneur. Such money can really change lives, in addition to providing a great chance for young entrepreneurs to get the coaching they need.
Guillory had this to say about her attendance at Warrior Fund: “That event in particular stuck in my mind. I kept thinking: “What if that were me up there? How would I answer these hard-hitting questions?” It really hammered home for me that I needed to know what I was doing, and why. How exactly am I going to make this work? If you don’t have some [plan], all your efforts will be for nothing, ending up as a huge waste of money and time.”
I asked Guillory if there was any practical advice she could offer an entrepreneur just starting out, and she had a few choice words for those who would follow her path:
“The best lessons I’ve been taught is that you should definitely have a plan. Try to imagine yourself six months in advance, and always save your money. [laughs] Because there are always going to be unintended expenses that are going to come up. Surprises always happen.
“Always always have a business card. You never know when someone is going to come up to you and say “I really like what you do; do you have a business card?” When you don’t have one, they lose interest.”
In Michigan, entrepreneurship is rarer than most people would like. With well-established industries employing large swaths of our economy, it is hard to overcome the ‘factory mentality’ here, i.e. the idea that a career is best pursued within a large company, rather than dealing with the risks and rewards of an entrepreneurial venture.
According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity 1996-2012, Michigan ranked near the bottom of entrepreneurial activity by state, with only 180 startup business per 100,000 people, on average. Only Minnesota (150) and Nebraska (170) ranked lower. If we are to secure our economic future for our state and for our younger generations, this needs to change.
Our colleges and universities are fighting to move that needle, and in doing so, are creating unique educational opportunities for their students from which all students can benefit. This is true no matter if they are engineers, business students, or for that matter, comic book artists.
In Michigan, we talk about entrepreneurship a great deal these days. Ms. Guillory and her fellow students are living out that ideal, making the world their own in a wide variety of different fields, and BLP is helping them make that happen.
For any student, I can’t imagine a better education than that.
Ms. Guillory’s comic can be previewed at http://ashurcollective.com/, and can be reached for media inquiries here. Since this article was written, Ms. Guillory has been funded by Wayne’s Warrior Fund.