For more than a decade, SVSU’s Dow Entrepreneurship Institute has helped future entrepreneurs and business leaders achieve their dreams.
The institute — which is part of SVSU’s Scott L. Carmona College of Business & Management and funded by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation and PNC Bank — offers workshops, contests and external speaker events that give students an inside view of business ownership and management. Through the institute’s community connections, students earn the opportunity to work directly with local business leaders and learn from established entrepreneurs.
The institute works closely with educators who teach entrepreneurship classes at SVSU, providing support while supplementing students’ coursework by bringing real-world business experience into the classroom.
“There are a lot of students who graduate with certain skills that almost immediately turn into employment or entrepreneurship opportunities for themselves,” said Izabela Szymanska, an assistant professor of management. “We would like to facilitate that.”
Through the institute’s work with the entrepreneurship minor offered, students gain exposure to the types of leadership and skills needed to create their own businesses, said David Bell, who leads the Entrepreneurship Institute for SVSU.
“Entrepreneurs must be skilled at being leaders, solving problems creatively, managing diverse business situations and being resourceful in arriving at solutions to challenges under real-world constraints,” said Bell, SVSU’s associate director of entrepreneurship, experiential learning & continuing education.
“They are good at persuading and inspiring others, and at adopting many different roles as needs dictate.”
While the institute’s programs and events primarily are geared toward students in the College of Business & Management, Bell encourages students of all majors to consider participating. Bell has worked with new businesses in science, engineering, technology, healthcare and the arts.
Carter Mazur was a student worker with the institute before he received a bachelor’s degree in business management in 2018. “Where the institute comes in is on the experiential side of things,” Mazur said. “What we focused on when I worked there were the out-of-classroom experiences. Learning in a classroom is good for some people, but experience is much more valuable for others.”
Mazur said a major focus of the institute is the creation of networking opportunities between students and established entrepreneurs and investors from all over the country. These individuals help students understand the experience of being an entrepreneur.
One student favorite was California-based online technology reviewer Keaton Keller, who was invited to speak at SVSU in February 2018. Keller grew a small Internet following into a fan base numbering in the millions while developing a successful business over the course of his career. During his talk at SVSU, he relayed his experience and knowledge to SVSU students from a variety of majors, including some from outside the College of Business & Management.
In a more “feet-to-the-fire” approach, the institute gives students the opportunity to advocate their ideas to local investors during the Elevator Pitch Competition as well as the Business Pitch Competition hosted by the university.
The Elevator Pitch Competition tasks students who own a business or have business ideas with developing a two-minute pitch. The competition requires a combination of excellent public speaking skills and the ability to effectively summarize complex ideas quickly for others, without the use of visual aids or props.
The institute also plays a role in regional business development through partnerships with local businesses and investment firms.
BlueWater Angels, an investor’s network that focuses on supporting start-up companies in their infancy, has been a close partner of the Entrepreneurial Institute since 2009. Part of BlueWater Angels’ investment strategy includes their own “Deal Night” pitch events at SVSU, where local entrepreneurs lobby their investors for funding.
“Faculty and students have been able to learn from actual business interactions between entrepreneurs and investors, which later lead to decisions made by the BlueWater Angels about whether or not to support new business ventures,” Bell said.
Students can take part in research projects benefitting local businesses that have partnered with the institute. As part of their coursework, students conduct market research relevant to the business partner’s needs, including reviewing business trends literature, developing specific business governance practices, creating market segmentation to better define the needs of a business’ potential clients and analyzing local demographics, competitors and key trends.
“Some of it happens in upper-level management and marketing classes, but if a student wants to work on an independent studies basis, they can do that as well, which can actually be even better,” Szymanska said.
Szymanska views this as a mutually beneficial relationship between local businesses and the students who work on these projects. Participating students gain consulting and market analysis experience while their clients get help with their business challenges.
Szymanska said students were pleasantly surprised by the quality of jobs they secured.
“The students tell employers about the projects they’ve completed, and the response from the employer is, ‘This is real work, so you are not just an entry-level candidate,’” she said.
Szymanska said these types of experiential learning opportunities help students recognize what they can offer a potential employer.
Faculty members such as Szymanska and Luke Voegel, assistant professor of management, bring their academic expertise to the table. The institute also provides students with a wealth of business knowledge from Bell, a former Dow executive, and Dominic Monastiere, SVSU’s Boutell-First Merit Bank Executive in Residence.
Bell uses his experience to mentor students who take part in the institute’s events or have chosen the entrepreneurship minor.
“The chance to help people who are wrestling with whether and how to start a new business is very satisfying,” Bell said.
“If something from my new business experience can help an entrepreneur to further her or his new venture without having to learn it from ‘the school of hard knocks,’ that is a great feeling.”