By Pam Houghton
When Nancy Benovich Gilby was hired to lead the University of Michigan School of Information’s Entrepreneurship Program in June 2014, her “big, hairy, audacious goal” was to make sure each student participated in a “passion-led, self-driven innovation project.”
It seems Gilby, who received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer engineering from U-M, is succeeding. Students from the school’s Master of Science in Information (MSI) and Master of Health Informatics programs, and the newly formed Bachelor of Science in Information (BSI) program, are striking out on their own, taking Nancy’s prescription for successful risk-taking to heart.
“I try to get the students into the mindset of their target customers so they can really experience what it is like to do some type of innovation work no matter where they go,” says Gilby, who has led or co-founded 10 startup companies. “If you are passionate about something and go about it in the right way, you can find a way to add value and have impact,” whether as an entrepreneur or employee of a business or nonprofit organization.
Though students from other schools at U-M may participate in the campus-wide Entrepreneurship Program, Gilby is tailoring curriculum to the School of Information’s unique focus: the intersection of people, technology and society. While undergraduate students may take entrepreneurship classes for academic credit through the School of Information and participate in learning events outside the classroom, participation at the graduate level has been extracurricular, though academic classes are in development.
Shedding light on the process
“The entrepreneurship process was such a black box until Nancy came in,” says Master of Science in Information student Kristen Sheppard, 26. “Nancy shed a lot of light on how to navigate, negotiate, present and pitch an idea that is compelling.”
There is no shortage of events for students to navigate, negotiate, present and pitch ideas. The New York Innovation Trek was designed with that in mind. The first one took place in October 2013 and the next a year later.
The Trek attracts 25-30 students from U-M who work in teams on passion-led projects. To prepare, they work under the tutelage of entrepreneurship mentors, who guide them through a “customer discovery” process, a touchstone of the program that requires them to gather data from customer interviews. Listening with empathy and recording customer responses is key, before and after the solution is crafted.
“The program teaches you that if you have an idea, you have to go out and value it. You want to make sure the problem is something a lot of people have, and the solution is something they want,” says Bachelor of Science in Information student Jeffery Zhang, 21.
At the Trek, students pitch their customer-vetted ideas to executives from tech companies — such as Google, Yahoo and Tumblr — and investors, who give students feedback on the potential of their real-world solutions.
The Trek inspired MSI student Sheppard and her team members to create The Broke App out of a shared passion for financial literacy. Though the team considered approaches to several financial challenges, they settled on a solution that helps college students and young adults manage spending habits.
“Through customer interviews, we learned that a lot of students realized they had to control their spending, especially when they were having ‘Oh, crap’ moments like, ‘Did I save enough for rent or books?’ As we went through the Trek, we continued to adapt [the app] based on college student feedback.”
This summer, Gilby will mentor Sheppard and another team member while they work on coding the app.
Whether Sheppard starts her own business or joins “a small team within a company that is driving change and impact,” the program is preparing her to handle uncertainty.
“Part of entrepreneurship is learning to take risks and being okay with failure,” says Sheppard, who hails from Midland, MI. However, when something “doesn’t work out,” she doesn’t view it as failure. “I see it as being able to say, ‘So this idea didn’t work. Let’s adapt and expand in a different way.’”
Method to the madness
Zhang, the BSI student, came up with an idea for a video game app that encourages online and in-person socializing, but “fleshed it out through Nancy’s class SI363: Busting Myths and Pursuing Innovations with Mobile Apps.” Zhang received help from two other students, one from the School of Information, the other from U-M’s engineering school.
“The customer discovery, research and pitching were done as part of a class exercise, but the actual conception of the application was all done outside of class,” Zhang says.
Inspired by his own passion for the “incredibly social aspect” of online video games, the app, GrubQuest, rewards game-winning players with restaurant coupons that can only be redeemed in groups.
“The idea from a business perspective was to bring a full table to the restaurant, and from a personal perspective, to promote social interaction and inhibit personal consumption. It’s not as much fun to eat alone as it is with friends.”
Talking to potential customers — college students and business owners — and asking for feedback on his ideas got him out of his comfort zone. But it was a good exercise: Zhang understands that to be a successful entrepreneur, “You have to hustle.”
He plans to launch the app in the fall with the other two members of his team. “This program taught me the right way to do things,” says Zhang, who was born in Ann Arbor but spent his teen years in Shanghai. “There’s a method to the madness, to the work that you have to put in over an extended period of time, and this program is the ladder up for that.”
Leading with passion
U-M Master of Science in Information student and Chicago native Michael Collins, who has a master’s degree in human resources and worked as an assistant computer network administrator for the Navy, led his Trek project with a passion for both human resources and information technology.
The Innovation Trek in New York, where students from U-M pitch customer-vetted ideas to technology executives and investors, provided the framework for his product, Incearch, a recruitment tool for IT professionals.
As required for the Trek, Collins and his team engaged in customer discovery, a twofold process where potential users are interviewed before and after a solution is crafted. Collins and his team zeroed in on two HR recruitment challenges: sorting through thousands of resumes that arrive via job boards and finding candidates with job-appropriate skills on LinkedIn. “Recruiters can’t tell if the person is really qualified,” says Collins of a process prone to time-wasting emails and phone screenings.
The solution, Incearch, combines financial incentives with crowd-sourcing techniques and a large referral network to identify the most qualified candidates. The attraction for users: “Less money spent on recruitment and better ROI,” says Collins, who also worked as an IT headhunter. “I saw how companies struggled.”
“I’m really passionate about entrepreneurship,” he says. The product is in the incubator stage, which provides Collins and his team free office space, access to mentors and resources such as website hosting services to help them accelerate the growth of their startup.
“There are two things Nancy (Nancy Benovich Gilby, Ehrenberg Director of Entrepreneurship, University of Michigan School of Information) brought home with this program,” Collins says. “The first is having a framework to understand if you have a viable idea. There’s a process and a way to manage entrepreneurship to improve your odds of success.
“The second is that in the development stage, products don’t have to be perfect before you ask for feedback. You want to get your product out there as fast as possible. Don’t hide it and keep it a secret. Let people poke holes in it so that you can fix it and make it better.”