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Entrepreneurship and the Zell Lurie Institute at Michigan / Ross

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CA: What is the most popular networking opportunity, if there is one?
ST: One of the programs that I personally wanted to call attention to is Zell Entrepreneurs, the small group of students who really want to launch their companies when they graduate, who may then become part of the Zell Global Entrepreneurs Network. Often they are working on their business plan for a year or two. As soon as they finish, they want to go door-to-door and get their business running. So, we run that program here at Ross, and Zell, our primary benefactor, also supports a program in Israel that does the same thing, as well as one at Kellogg at Northwestern. We take our students to Israel, the Kellogg students go to Israel, and the Israeli students work with us. The students in that program get to build their network across the Kellogg program, the Israeli program and the Michigan program. They then become part of a group that we call ZGEN, which is the acronym for Zell Global Entrepreneurs Network. This group is the alumni of all of the people who have gone through our respective programs over the years who then can connect together in a broader group; they become part of this Zell-sponsored community of entrepreneurs that’s growing year by year. The students who come through the program become part of the Ross alumni network, the Michigan alumni network, and this very focused and high quality Zell Global Entrepreneurs Network.

CA: Could you go into a little more detail about the Ross Open Road and the Michigan Business Challenge as they relate to the MBA program. I saw that the Business Challenge is the largest business plan competition at Ross, but it would be great if you could just walk us through.
ST: The model for the Business Challenge is that it is open to students across the University of Michigan, it is not limited to students in the MBA program. Our MBAs are certainly very active in it, but it’s an open competition across the University. Because of that, we get really high-quality entrants from across campus.

We typically start out with about 100 entries in the fall. We do a pre-qualifying round and narrow that down to about 60.  Then those 60 pitch in round one and we narrow that number down to 16. The 16 teams that have advanced to round two, over the next two months, get intense mentorship. We work with the students, they have opportunities to practice their pitches, and to develop their business.

By the time they pitch in the next round, the expectation is that they will all have increased in quality. Eight will advance from round two to the semi-finals; then four will advance to the finals.

Total prize money across the competition is around $100,000.

We also have two parallel tracks—a conventional business track, and a social impact track. For each of those, the top prize is $25,000. It is important for us to acknowledge that being a social venture does not mean you are a second-class citizen, and that you get less prize money. It is about recognizing that social ventures are every bit as important as standard for-profit ventures, and so with these parallel tracks, we enable students to pursue either one and excel in either one.

The semi-finals and the finals happen on the same day. In the semi-finals—there’s a pitch: Your standard pitch business plan competition; then the teams that advance to the finals don’t pitch anymore; they just sit down across the table from three or four finals’ judges and get grilled for half an hour. It is much more what the real world is like if you’re trying to raise money: You do your initial pitch to the potential investor, but then the real work happens when you sit down across the table and really do a deep dive into your company. We try to replicate that experience, so that the judges really get an understanding of what the business is about, and the students go through the very real-world experience of what it’s like sitting down with a group of investors.

Then there is Open Road: it is really an opportunity for students to give back in a way. It’s simultaneously an opportunity for students to learn by going out into the world and traveling around the country and meeting entrepreneurs, and learning about new businesses. At the same time, sharing what they learned in business school and bringing a fresh set of eyes to the entrepreneurs that participate.

Open Road is a combination of internship meets consultancy, all at the same time, giving students the opportunity to both learn and share what they’ve learned as students with entrepreneurs in the field. They will travel around a region, meet with several different entrepreneurs, and provide small business consulting services to the entrepreneurs that participate in the program. It usually takes place just after the end of the winter semester and before they start their internships. There’s a gap, typically in the month of May, a lot of internships don’t start until June.

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Lauren Wakal
Lauren Wakal has been covering the MBA admissions space for more than a decade, from in-depth business school profiles to weekly breaking news and more.