Initiatives support entrepreneurship in Michigan

Michigan’s prolonged economic misery has worsened in recent years as area employers have shed thousands of jobs, many of which had afforded workers the chance at a middle-class lifestyle.

In an economy long tied to the manufacturing sector — especially the automotive industry — observers say the state’s need to diversify has never been more urgent.

“We’ve got to get away from the old manufacturing mindset that you could thrive in a basic manufacturing, low-skilled, uneducated community,” said David Hollister, president and CEO of the Lansing-based Prima Civitas Foundation. “We really need a whole new skill set and we, as a state, need to be much more innovative.”

Hollister and others believe that adding new spark to Michigan’s entrepreneurial spirit will help ignite the state’s economy again.

We know the entrepreneurial gene exists in Michigan; it’s just become dormant for a couple of generations.” Kelly Masters

To that end, Prima Civitas launched in 2007 — with Charles Stewart Mott Foundation support — the Moving Ideas to Market initiative. Its goals are to create a statewide environment that nurtures entrepreneurship and small-business development, and to brand the state as a place where entrepreneurs of all ages can thrive.

Mott grants for Prima Civitas, which started in 2006, and Moving Ideas to Market have totaled $1.83 million since 2007.

Specifically, Moving Ideas to Market, with the help of more than 50 volunteers, is promoting entrepreneurial education and hands-on opportunities for students in grades K-12 and beyond; building collaborations among the state’s colleges and universities; and developing a comprehensive support network for budding entrepreneurs.

“We can plug you into a network,” said Hollister. “We can connect you with people who have gone through what you’ve gone through and who can assist, guide and mentor you. And you can, in turn, contribute whatever you can.”

Those efforts could not be more timely, says Greg Main, CEO and president of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The nationwide recession, which includes a slump in the housing market and high unemployment, has taxed most states, none more than Michigan.

Yet, says Main, there is often an upsurge in entrepreneurial activity after people lose jobs and then decide to start their own businesses.

He points to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, a state-by-state measure of entrepreneurial growth. The index shows that each month in 2009, approximately 300 of every 100,000 residents in Michigan started a new business, an increase from 200 of every 100,000 people in 2006. The national rate for 2009 was 340 out of every 100,000 people started new businesses each month.

“The good news is we’re on the right track,” said Main, adding that one of the highest hurdles for entrepreneurs is not being aware of available resources that support success.

That’s where Igniting Innovation in Michigan is playing a pivotal role.

The project, developed and produced by WWJ News Radio 950 in Detroit, is showcasing efforts — including stories highlighted in the station’s Great Lakes Innovation & Technology Report — to create a new economic future in Michigan.

Mott, through a $50,000 grant to Prima Civitas, is helping to underwrite Igniting Innovation in 2010.

The station kicked off the project in July with a statewide media campaign featuring three “vignettes” or stories about Moving Ideas to Market. The first focused on the importance of entrepreneurship to Michigan’s future and the need for individuals to provide leadership and resources to potential entrepreneurs.

The second encourages new and prospective small business owners to tap into the Moving Ideas to Market web portal. The site, unveiled in May, is designed to be a go-to place for such information as how to write a business plan and securing funding for a new venture.

A third vignette, set to debut soon, will publicize the “Igniting Innovation in Michigan: Entrepreneurs in Action” conference and expo scheduled for September 29, in Dearborn, Michigan. The event, also organized by WWJ, will provide networking, business coaching and learning opportunities for entrepreneurs and leaders in business, education, government and the nonprofit sector.

“We know the entrepreneurial gene exists in Michigan; it’s just become dormant for a couple of generations,” said Kelly Masters, a WWJ account executive who created and executed the media campaign. “We need to create a culture that supports entrepreneurship.”

Holly Hetzner, Prima Civitas’ special projects administrator, notes that the radio promotions and articles featuring Moving Ideas to Market are having the desired impact. More than 1,000 visitors logged onto the website in the first two months, with a clear uptick after the first Igniting Innovation piece aired.

Bryan Scheiber is among those to heed the call.

The 20-year-old, who is majoring in business and computer science at Alma College in Michigan, was still in high school in the state when he started his own company, now called Zorveo Inc., offering web-related design, development and management services.

Scheiber was mulling over strategies for increasing his business when he heard the first radio spot about Moving Ideas to Market.

He went online, learned more about the initiative and began exploring opportunities to promote Zorveo’s services to other small business start-ups in the state.

“If you have a very good idea, age is not a factor,” said Scheiber.