A number of Hong Kong-based business programmes are now offering modules which focus on launching start-ups and turning good ideas into viable enterprises, but in this respect the University of Michigan can claim to be at least one step ahead.
Their Stephen M. Ross School of Business has already introduced a one-year master of entrepreneurship degree, which is attracting widespread interest and fast increasing list of applicants.
Taught in collaboration with the College of Engineering, the programme aims to give students the knowledge, tools and advice to convert their own concept into a standalone business and uses a practical, action-based approach, not just theory and talk about what others have done.
“The degree is oriented towards people with technical bent and a clear idea or interest they want to commercialise,” says Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “They usually have a background in science and engineering, but relatively little work experience, and the plan is that people emerge with a qualification and a new business.”
Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business
A good example is the member of last year’s first intake who worked on a low-cost, high-effectiveness warmer for premature infants in less developed countries, where an incubator may not be available. As a form of blanket, it uses a particular technology to meet an obvious need and is already gaining significant “traction”.
During the admissions process, applicants are expected to discuss a project or concept in some detail, though are not obliged to stick with that during the programme if their interests happen to shift elsewhere.
Subsequently, courses, case studies and seminars cover everything from business basics to identifying potential markets, obtaining funds, developing and launching a product or service, and generating revenue and profits.
In drawing on expertise from the business and engineering faculties, the intention is to represent “both sides of the equation”. It helps students to assimilate different viewpoints and approaches and, in very practical terms, demonstrates how individuals with diverse talents must work together to get any project off the ground.
“In real life, there are people with different backgrounds, temperaments and vocabularies,” say Davis-Blake. “When implementing or running a business, it is important to know how to deal with them.”
She adds that, during the programme, there are opportunities to work with student-run venture funds, as well as university-backed pre-seed and social venture funds offering support for various types of enterprise. And while meetings or seminars with well known entrepreneurs may provide an “ah ha” moment for some, the overall aim is not to emulate other success stories, but to originate.
“There are many ways of developing entrepreneurship capabilities, but our master’s is aimed at a very definite population of students who already have an idea,” says Davis-Blake, who visited Hong Kong in mid-January to meet alumni and explore possible partnerships with locally based business schools. “We are trying to address the gap between theory and practice by putting students in a setting where there is a lot of cross-fertilisation and germination of ideas, and spending more time working on their specific projects.”
The Ross school expects demand for this type of degree to grow consistently. In part, that is because entrepreneurship is in the news, a hot topic, and with the advance of technology, the number of things with “commercialisation” potential continues to grow.
In addition, though, it is a function of broader social changes which see the younger generation less inclined to follow the more standard corporate career path taken by many of their parents. Having seen how that can turn out if recession hits or ambitions are frustrated means expectations about the world of work are changing on all sorts of levels.
“The latest generation of students is quite different in how and what they learn and in the kind of careers they aspire to,” Davis-Blake says. “They want to work for themselves or for companies that reflect their values and ideals. There is a very different mindset among a much larger percentage than ever before, and the forces underlying this trend will continue for the next decade, with young people now having different life experiences and technology.”
As a result, firms in every sector have to find ways to be more flexible and think constructively about what productivity means. It should be a matter of outcomes rather than hours at a desk or on an assembly line. They must also respond to the call to demonstrate greater social responsibility and, in certain cases, move away from the blinkered pursuit of profit about all else.
Setting a positive example, Ross students are encouraged to take an active involvement in addressing pressing business and social problems in Detroit.
“Our students learn how to run businesses that do three things: create economic value, be good employers and good neighbours,” Davis-Blake says. “Starting from their orientation projects, we have opportunities for them to understand the interaction between business and society and serve community needs. We don’t tell them how to spend their lives after graduation, but they are equipped and empowered to make a positive difference.”