I am one of the 50,000+ students in a Michigan college and university that will graduate this spring and will have to answer the question – what am I am going to do after graduation and where am I going to do it?
How I, and my fellow graduating peers, answer that question is important – all of the research indicates that attracting and retaining young educated talent is key to a region’s economic prosperity. In particular, because we are mostly single or without families, so we are the most mobile and likely to leave to other places.
As a graduate student, this is the second time I have had to answer this question – the first time was 10 years ago. In the interim, the attitudes of students towards both Detroit and entrepreneurship have shifted noticeably and positively.
In particular, in 2000, all of my peers wanted to leave and viewed a job in Detroit or a small company as both a compromise and “getting stuck here”. While many of my peers still pursue the opportunities and action of Chicago, NYC, or San Francisco, some of the most interesting, entrepreneurial, and creative graduates are now considering Detroit the place to be.
The first time I noticed this shift was during a Center for Michigan community conversation in 2008 that convened a group of college students to talk about what they wanted for Michigan’s future. At the end, when asked “What was working in Michigan”, the overwhelming response was “Entrepreneurship.” This sentiment was in contrast to what the Center for Michigan had seen elsewhere. In other words, unlike the general population, students were the ones that were most looking to entrepreneurship as the answer. This is a hopeful shift.
If we look at the flavor of entrepreneurship that is happening in Detroit right now, it is about creating a sense of place. The most celebrated entrepreneurs are young people who are trying to offer the basic amenities that would attract other recent graduates like themselves– restaurants, bars, retail stores, lofts, local food, and local media.
These placemaking entrepreneurs are critical because their work ultimately addresses a critical issue for Detroit – attracting and retaining young people. And, because of their work, attitudes of young people are shifting and Detroit is beginning to be viewed as an exciting place to be.
While the placemakers are a critical foundation layer, we need a growth layer of new companies that offer products and services to the world, not just locally to Detroit. In this space, we see tremendous student interest and activity. Just two weeks ago, a remarkable 300+ Michigan-based student teams participated in the Accelerate Michigan business plan competition.
To put this in perspective, the largest student business plan competition in the world up to that point (at Rice University) attracted 320 applications from all over the world. Accelerate Michigan attracted more than 300 teams from just Michigan! And, 10 years ago, I didn’t know a single student on campus interested in entrepreneurship and now entrepreneurship-focused clubs are some of the largest on campus.
Importantly, many of these student businesses have game-changing technologies that could become high-growth companies. The top 3 teams were turning food waste into high-end compost using anaerobic digestors, scaling formal verification of chip designs, and screening for neurodegenerative drug compounds. This is a different world than selling barbecue pork sandwiches. But, both are critically important.
One of the most interesting recent student entrepreneurship stories is Veronika Scott, a College for Creative Studies student that has designed an inexpensive “coat-that-turns-into-a-sleeping-bag” for homeless people using army blankets and insulating wrap. She was featured on National Public Radio and has clothing maker Carhartt helping with production. This is a superb example of a student using her creative and entrepreneurial talents to respond to a local need that has national potential.
Entrepreneurship is powerful and transformative, but it is not the end all be all. Detroit has room, and need, for all types of young people. So, the real goal is just simply getting more students thinking about the possibilities of Detroit when they are deciding what to do after college.
Ten years ago, I would classify the interest in Detroit on campus as present, but small and focused on ways to give back to a downtrodden city. Now, the tone has changed from “giving back” to showcasing the positive things that are happening and the opportunities for students to build career, have a quality life, and make an impact in Detroit. For example, the student-initiated Revitalization and Business: Focus Detroit conference is all about the role that business, innovation, and entrepreneurship is playing in Revitalizing Detroit. The tone is one of opportunity and positive momentum and the student interest has been high.
The important point here is that all of these stories are indicators of a positive shift – a shift in interest level, a shift in attitude and perception, and a shift in ambition – of students towards Detroit and towards entrepreneurship.
And, this shift in thinking is happening at the absolute ideal time for them–right when they are thinking about, and being asked about, what they want to do with their life after graduation.