Why the University of Michigan is tops in entrepreneurship

Students flock to the University of Michigan's entrepreneurial courses

Students flock to the University of Michigan’s entrepreneurial courses

The University of Michigan (U-M) may be a state-sponsored public school, but it often ranks among the world’s most respected private schools. U-M is also one of the top-ranked schools for offering entrepreneurship programs. Last month, Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine ranked the school’s entrepreneurship ecosystem in the top 5 globally. At the graduate level, the University of Michigan is also #1 for entrepreneurship programs in the Midwest and #2 globally.

U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship was founded by famed NASA administrator and former U-M professor Thomas Zurbuchen in 2008 with the aim to evangelize entrepreneurship in Ann Arbor and to help instill the entrepreneurial mindset into the regional culture. Kurt Skifstad, executive director of U-M’s Center for Entrepreneurship says that what started out as a niche add-on to the academic experience is now a core offering that prepares students for long-term success in industry, academia, government, and the startup world. Flyover Future spoke to Skifstad about what makes U-M stand out.

Tell us about the entrepreneurial structure at U-M.

Skifstad: The University of Michigan is a large university and there are probably 17 or 18 different entrepreneurship-related programs within the university. The two big ones academically include us, the Center for Entrepreneurship, which is housed in the College of Engineering, and the Ross School of Business. Within the Ross School of Business is the Zell Lurie Institute, which primarily serves students in MBAs and Business. The Stamps School of Art and Design also has different groups that are doing interesting things.

There are three main pillars of entrepreneurship at U-M. Talk about those.

Skifstad: One is our academic program. We have 30 entrepreneurship courses in our catalog and about 3,000 students a year take those classes. Half of those students are engineering students and half are from many other majors at the university. The second pillar is our entrepreneurial practice programs, which are immersive experiences for the students.

We have a tech lab program where we bring in students who are interested in a specific technical area like autonomous vehicles or electrification or cybersecurity, and pair them with growth stage and early-stage companies who are building the commercializing breakthrough technologies in those areas. It’s a combination of classwork and product work in those specific disciplines. The autonomous vehicle track has been very successful.

Other examples of the immersive experiences would be startup incubator activity and mentoring. We also have tracks where students sign up to go on 3D immersive experiences in different ecosystems in the country, like the Bay Area and the Washington DC area. The overarching goal is to introduce students to career opportunities in earlier stage, more entrepreneurial companies.

And then the third pillar is the NSF I-Corps hub, which has to do with commercialization of faculty research and education. The University of Michigan is a I-Corps hub, which means we are the center for 15 universities, and it’s where faculty and grad students align their research with commercial opportunities.

U-M also offers a minor in Entrepreneurship?

Skifstad: Yes. It is a campus-wide minor and is consistently one of the more popular minors across campus. The Center for Entrepreneurship serves about a third of those credit hours. We also have a graduate certificate for masters students in entrepreneurship. The certificate goes on top of their degree in whatever area they’re focusing on.

The Center for Entrepreneurship started out 15 years ago as kind of a niche concept. How has it grown?

Skifstad: Over the past decade or 15 years, entrepreneurship has gone from kind of a hot new concept in academia to something that’s expected. A colleague of mine at Harvard Business School said that when he started about 10 years ago, less than 10 percent of the MBA students were focused on entrepreneurship, and now it’s between 60 and 70 percent. The Center started with a small focus cohort of students, and now, half of all engineering graduates and one in five students across our campus are engaging with some sort of entrepreneurial program.

Why do you think the area of entrepreneurship is now such a big part of the college experience at U-M?

Skifstad: If you look at the way employment has changed, you know, people aren’t expecting to graduate and get a job where they’ll stay for the rest of their lives. We are now our own entrepreneurial entities, whether it’s just services that we’re bringing to market or building a collection of people to start a business. I think it’s just more widely accepted that these skills are valuable and are going to help you, regardless of what path you end up picking. With work geography not mattering anymore, with people working remotely, there’s a lot more flexibility and ability to kind of hold the pen in writing your story.