U-M Impact Challenge Seeks to Help Detroit Kids Become Entrepreneurs

It’s their first week on campus—and for many, their first time in the United States—but that isn’t slowing down about 450 graduate students from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Tuesday marked the kick-off of the Impact Challenge, an annual immersive leadership development program that this year focuses on getting Detroit kids interested in entrepreneurship.

Impact Challenge participants are charged with creating a sustainable, for-profit enterprise over the course of a week that will be dedicated to increasing the odds of Detroit students growing up to be successful entrepreneurs.

The overarching idea behind the Impact Challenge is using the power of business to make a difference in the world, says Scott DeRue, associate dean and faculty director of the Ross Leadership Initiative.

“The Ross School has a long history of working in Detroit as part of the onboarding of new students,” DeRue says. “For years, students did service projects, and then four years ago, we identified the idea of the Impact Challenge to create something of consequence.”

This year, Impact Challenge students spent Tuesday in Detroit immersed with partner organizations like TechTown and the Detroit Parent Network. The group split into six teams of approximately 75 U-M students each and spent the day meeting with community leaders, parents, and kids in five SWOT City neighborhoods. One of the teams served as data integrators and stayed behind at U-M to track the Ross students’ observations and insights on social media in real time. (Search #RossImpact on Twitter and Instagram to listen in on the conversation.)

Today, the Ross students will reconvene in Ann Arbor to hash out their venture concepts, business plans, and pitches. On Thursday, each team will pitch its concept to a panel of judges, and the judges will choose one idea to launch after evaluating all of them for scalability, financial feasibility, and sustainability. On Friday, the students will develop a Kickstarter campaign to raise money toward getting the winning venture off the ground, and they’ll spend September through May 2015 taking the venture from concept to creation. The Kickstarter capital will be added to corporate funding Impact Challenge has received, including $50,000 from GM.

“The Ross School stresses positive business, meaning we want to use commerce to transform communities,” DeRue says. “The venture students create has to be a for-profit company, and I’m hoping that will help students develop the skills and mindset to use business as a positive force for change.”

DeRue points to research that shows 70 to 80 percent of kids would like to be an entrepreneur, but those in urban areas like Detroit don’t have access to the kinds of resources that would encourage them in that direction.

“These kids often don’t have entrepreneurial role models that look like them, or the path to success is not clear,” DeRue says. “I’d like people to understand the power of youth entrepreneurship to create opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. If we can create platforms for youth entrepreneurship, we can create platforms for revitalization. I hope to create the seed of an idea that could be replicated.”

Leslie Smith, TechTown’s CEO, appreciates the Ross School’s efforts to advance entrepreneurship for Detroit kids. She says her organization has struggled at times to expand its own entrepreneurial training efforts.

“In school, entrepreneurship is seen as nice to have, but not necessary,” Smith says. “But we’re finding it truly is a critical educational component because more and more young people are having to create their own jobs. It’s also far easier to add an element of entrepreneurship and innovation to the mindset of young people than folks my age.”

Smith says she hopes the Impact Challenge teams solve not only the problems they intend to solve, but also problems they didn’t intend to solve (or even know about) before becoming immersed in the local community.

“This is part of the fulfillment of bringing entrepreneurial thinking to Detroit neighborhoods so it will lead to lasting solutions for inner city challenges,” Smith adds. “We’ve long envisioned the merging of economic development and technology innovation, so this is an important first step.”

DeRue says the Impact Challenge students bring a lot of energy and curiosity about Detroit to the project. About a third of the students aren’t from the U.S., and what they know about Detroit has often come from breathless news stories that emphasize the negative.

“What they don’t all realize is Detroit’s rich history of culture and entertainment, and how that’s a great source of pride to residents,” he says. “Detroit is also a hub of commerce, and it’s second in the U.S. in terms of job recovery after the recession. There’s lots of positive momentum in the private sector happening in Detroit. If we take the concept of positive business seriously, it can have an impact and be a prime source of revitalization. And if we have a small part in that, I’ll be proud.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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