By Omar Sofradzija, communications manager
The Entrepreneurship & Innovation minor at Michigan State University has seen explosive growth since launching in 2016, adding hundreds of new students each school year. Driving enrollment among undergrads isn’t just an interest in business skills, but a desire to use those skills to make a better world.
“You’d be surprised how many of the students – more than I would have expected – describe a desire to want to change the world, fix a social problem, feed the hungry, educate the illiterate, fix their neighborhood, help out people behind them,” said Neil Kane, director of MSU’s Undergraduate Entrepreneurship Program. “It’s expressed so many different ways, but I see a lot of that come through.”
While still in its infancy, the program is beginning to get attention from not just students, but academic peers. Earlier this month MSU was named among the top 25 schools for undergraduate entrepreneurship studies by the Princeton Review, finishing 21st out of more than 300 schools considered for the ranking.
The goal of the program isn’t necessarily to create a cadre of entrepreneurs ready to start new businesses. Rather, it is using the skill sets of entrepreneurship to give students the ability to be agile, flexible, and adaptable in a future where career paths are likely to change, opportunities will appear unexpectedly, and established ways of doing things will rapidly become out of date.
“It doesn’t matter whether you start your own business or not. Every one of us can think like an entrepreneur … and act with a sense of responsibility; act with a sense of risk-taking; act with a sense of being willing to go to the end of the world find a solution to a problem; having the curiosity as well as the bravery to tackle the unknown,” said Sanjay Gupta, dean of the Broad College. “That’s the hallmark of our program.”
Students are taught to embrace “entrepreneurial mindset domains” that Kane said includes “opportunity recognition; comfort with risk; being flexible and adaptable; being innovative; learning to communicate and work in teams; these are the traits that I believe very strongly are necessary for any graduate to have, regardless of whether they start their own business.”
“The hard skills that a student gets coming out of university atrophy very quickly. They’ve got a half-life of about two years,” Kane said. “I think it’s the adaptability, the resilience that really matters the most.”
Program adding 100 new students per semester
During the 2017-18 school year, more than 600 undergraduate students, from 13 colleges and representing 129 different majors, participated in the minor. Of those, 144 students were from the Eli Broad College of Business. The program has been adding roughly 100 new students per semester.
In the minor, what happens in class is just a starting point to learning.
“The most valuable component of everything that we do – once students have a baseline set of core courses under their belts – are the experiential offerings,” Kane said. “I’m a firm believer that entrepreneurship is about doing … you don’t learn entrepreneurship by reading a textbook or sitting in a lecture; it only comes from real human-to-human contact.”
Experiential offerings as of late include Startup Weekend, a structured 48-hour weekend where students brainstorm and come up with creative business ideas on a Friday that are turned into developed prototypes being pitched by Sunday afternoon.
“The experience encompasses a lot of the adrenaline rush and the sense of urgency and the importance of decisiveness and doing all of that in a very compressed timeframe,” Kane said. “Students always come away from it – even if they entered into it a little begrudgingly – saying, ‘this was really awesome.’”
Even in what classes are offered, innovation drives the process. This fall, the E&I program rolled out a first-of-its-kind-in-Michigan course on Blockchain, the digital ledger system behind Bitcoin.
“It’s going to be interesting in the approach to how we did that and the recognition that we may need to find a mechanism to give students on a more regular basis these very fast-moving, topically-relevant, urgent sort of subjects,” Kane said. “I believe there is a place in the curriculum for figuring out how to create courses quickly, if you will.”
“If you’re going to teach innovation, you’ve got to be innovative,” Kane said.
More is on the horizon
What else is next? Kane is working on expanding study abroad opportunities; putting together a mentoring program working on life skills such as accountability, resilience, and communication; and encouraging faculty from across campus to either add modules to existing courses or develop new courses about entrepreneurship.
Kane said it will be several years out before many students truly understand the value of an entrepreneurial mindset in being able to take advantage of the ebbs and flows of career evolution. That’s now coming into view for Jeff Hall (BS Mechanical Engineering ’17), who minored in E&I and now works as a product design engineer at Apple.
E&I “gave me a breadth of interdisciplinary communication skills not included in the engineering classroom that are crucial to surviving in the fast-paced, cross-functional environment at Apple. I’m able to much more easily put myself in the shoes of other teams and develop optimal solutions to problems, just because the E&I minor put me in the shoes of everyone from a marketer to an electrical engineer,” Hall said. “The most important thing is that it forces you to get out of the classroom and into a land of uncertainty.”
Some students aren’t waiting for graduation to start leveraging what they’re learning as E&I minors. Brianna Makaric, a kinesiology junior, has started her own business: BRITE Bites, a probiotic snack company, for which she credits MSU Hatch as being “an invaluable resource.”
“I have truly enjoyed taking classes that relate so well to my business. Every day I am pushed to innovate and work smarter,” Makaric said. “I am extremely grateful for the resources and support Michigan State has provided. Our entrepreneurial ecosystem is globally recognized and it is an honor to be a part of it.”