Learning to Think Like an Entrepreneur
Neil Kane is MSU's director of undergraduate entrepreneurship, a position created in 2015 to serve as a point person to continue developing a campus-wide culture of entrepreneurship and innovation among undergrads.
You talk about helping students develop an “entrepreneurial mindset,” not simply becoming an entrepreneur. Why is this distinction important?
Entrepreneurship is a skill like reading, writing or salesmanship—it’s something that can be cultivated in people and that will serve them well in a variety of careers. Entrepreneurship demands leadership, resourcefulness, and pragmatism. It requires good communication skills and an ability to get things done. Those are all skills that will be helpful whether students start their own company, work for someone else, or pursue social change.
How do people seeking social change benefit from an entrepreneurial mindset?
One example: We had a student develop a business plan that helped bring all the furniture that students toss when they graduate into a place that makes the items available immigrant refugees. Students can take classes, listen to talks, go through accelerators. Who are these initiatives designed for? Our work is like a funnel: It’s open to everyone and in-depth programming is available for the smaller number of students who want to take their work further. For some students, it might be enough to come to a talk to a visiting alumni entrepreneur. Others may take a single class linked to entrepreneurship. Serious students may minor in entrepreneurship and innovation.
The minor includes two projects. In other words, students have to do more than just hit the books.
That’s right. I have a sign above my desk that says, “You can’t learn to swim at the library.” When it comes to being an entrepreneur, it’s experiential.
Are most of the students participating in these kinds of programs business students?
Not at all. That’s one of the things that make MSU’s work distinctive. Entrepreneurial students come from music, human development, engineering, psychology and supply chain—every area you can think of. It’s very democratic and that’s powerful.
Is there something about being in college that makes it an ideal time to start a business?
Our students get access to all sorts of resources and discounts. That all goes away one minute after they graduate. No matter how successful their businesses are, the lessons students learn will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
MSU Startup Bus: a Student-Led Passion Project
In 2014, student entrepreneurs sat down in the MSU Hatch to plan their trip to Austin's South by Southwest Interactive Festival, which draws global business gurus. But when they ran the numbers, they realized the trip was going to be too expensive.
Patrick Chouinard, a 2015 College of Natural Science grad, took inspiration from an idea he saw on Reddit to convert an old school bus into an RV. A solution took shape: transform the bus with the help of donations. The group launched a Kickstarter campaign, but pledges were slow moving. Resilient in the face of this setback, each student began cold calling startups. The team raised enough money from these Michigan-based companies to purchase and renovate the bus.
For a week, the students worked around the clock, turning the bus into a comfortable space, with a living area, kitchen, bathroom, and enough beds to sleep 10.
"My main goal was to eliminate the costs the university and sponsors have to spend year after year," said Chouinard. "Our students are creating companies, and some are ready to compete on a national level. Now we can send more students affordably."
For many student entrepreneurs, the bus is a modest, safe form of transportation and housing, giving access to national events and conferences--experiences with lasting impact.
Business Student and Former Wrestler Launches Nutrition Company
What’s the difference between a wrestling match and entrepreneurship? For Joe Johnson, not a whole lot.
You need to stay focused and move with precision. You can’t be half in, or quick to quit. This tenacity carried Johnson from the mats of Jenison Field House, as a member of the Spartan Wrestling team, to the national nutrition supplement market. Johnson launched VADE Nutrition, a line of dissolvable pre-portioned protein scoops. The pods are packaged into food-grade dissolvable film and can be tossed into water bottles or protein shakes. Just like the name’s Latin root suggests, they vanish instantly.
His wife, Megan, is his business partner. The two began nurturing this business venture while Joe finished his degree in Finance at MSU in Spring 2016. Around the same time, they had their son, Noah, who was born during finals week.
For these entrepreneurs and new parents, the day-to-day can seem like an uphill sprint.
This past year taught them that there’s much more to entrepreneurship than an innovative idea. Johnson spends his days traveling around the Midwest to different manufacturers, pitching his product to gym owners who may feature it on their shelves, and answering an endless stream of calls and emails?all par for the course when launching a nationwide online business.
But through it all, they realized the power of Spartan Nation. “I would say that it’s a lot stronger than a lot of school bonds. We’ve seen it in huge ways?people reaching out and actually looking out for us when nobody else would.”
From advice, to financial support, to business partners, the Johnson’s found a strong network of alumni to help them cultivate VADE. Even after graduation, Johnson received support from the Hatch, MSU’s entrepreneurial incubator for students from all corners of the university. The couple competed in the Greenlight Business Model Competition in February 2017 and won the second place $25,000 prize.
While their son is gingerly taking his first steps, their business is taking bold leaps and bounds. They’re getting an office space, hiring employees and marketing to anyone who will lend them an ear. Through it all, they always keep their new family as the priority, and their business motivations in clear view. “We want to be a light in the world, to actually make a difference and for people to see what good you can do with a successful business.”