Luncheon Keynote Address: "The 50 Most Influential Women in West Michigan"
March 2, 2010
Good afternoon, and thank you.
I want to begin today by sharing the details of a phone call.
A businessman contacted the news office of the University of Michigan, and said he wanted to advertise in our faculty and staff newspaper.
The editor spoke with him, and after hearing about the products he wanted to sell – in this case, stuffed and mounted animals – she told him it was not appropriate material for our audience and we would decline his advertisement.
He didn’t like this answer, and asked to speak with her supervisor. That led the businessman to the director of the news office. She supported the earlier decision and told him, “No, thank you, we will not carry your advertising.”
The caller, now very frustrated, demanded the name of the news director’s supervisor. That would be our vice president for communications, a member of my executive cabinet and at that time a woman with many years’ experience in advertising and marketing.
Well, this put the caller over the top. “How far up the chain at the University do I have to go,” he demanded to know, “before I can speak with a man?”
Of course, our gentleman caller did not get the answer he wanted, and he had no interest in speaking with me.
But I am very excited to be speaking with you, as women leaders who are making a difference in western Michigan and beyond. I want to thank the Grand Rapids Business Journal for inviting me to be part of your special day, and to congratulate you on your latest accomplishment.
As business executives, public officials and community leaders, you are important models of success for college students across our state. They know that Michigan is in an economic transformation, and they have a tremendous stake in the future direction of the state.
That is why higher education in Michigan is so committed to helping our state re-invent itself in what we all know is a remarkably challenging time.
Key to our new economy is a rebuilding of the entrepreneurial spirit, and I want to take some time today to share some of the work of those I know best: U-M students. These young people – students who are your sons and daughters, your neighbors, your nieces and nephews – are passionate about their ideas and their inventions, and they are making an impact.
And leaders like you inspire them, because leadership and entrepreneurship go hand in hand.
I also want to ask for your help in supporting Michigan college students and their growing entrepreneurial spirit.
Together, we must draw on our state’s entrepreneurial legacy and innovate once again. We must promote a culture of creativity and innovation to make Michigan an economic giant in the 21st century. And our colleges and universities are the perfect place to start.
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Let me stop and ask for a show of hands – how many of you use Google?
Google is powerful, ubiquitous, and the invention of a young man who grew up east of here.
Larry Page is the son of a Michigan State professor and a graduate of the University of Michigan. His idea for Google literally came to him in a dream, and it was a dream he decided to chase at age 23.
That vision has genuinely transformed the way our world accesses and shares information.
When Larry was at U-M, a student leadership program inspired him to have “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” It’s something every entrepreneur needs.
Michiganders have long believed in hard work and the entrepreneurial spirit. But we sometimes take for granted the giants of innovation who came to success here in Michigan.
We know the automotive kings, entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, Ransom E. Olds, Billy Durant, and the Dodge brothers.
Let’s also remember that Thomas Edison grew up in Port Huron, where he developed a love of tinkering. In Battle Creek, Will Kellogg invented corn flakes by accident, and in the process revolutionized breakfast. Up in Fremont, Daniel and Dorothy Gerber did as much for baby food when they experimented with straining fruits and vegetables for their infant daughter.
And here in Grand Rapids, Peter Wege and others launched Steelcase with an idea about how to make a fireproof wastebasket.
The names and accomplishments are quite remarkable, and they bear a common denominator in being from Michigan.
So how do we take this great legacy of innovation, and retool it for the economic challenges of today? By turning our young people loose with their ideas, supporting the risks they take, acknowledging the failures they are bound to encounter, and rewarding their innovation and creativity.
Grand Rapids knows all about this. You have hung out a shingle that welcomes innovation and creativity. By embracing the life sciences and supporting your colleges and universities, you are making this region a haven for entrepreneurs. And your ArtPrize competition not only showcases art, it also tells the world this is a community that supports and rewards originality.
It is this very spirit that we are stoking at the University of Michigan.
One of our most impressive entrepreneurs is Professor Ann Marie Sastry, an engineer focused on alternative forms of energy. Her expertise is battery technologies and how best to power the plug-in cars and trucks we need to distance ourselves from foreign oil.
She also is the founder and CEO of Sakti3, a company designated by the state of Michigan as a Center of Energy Excellence, making it a focal point for spurring alternative energy R&D in our region. Our state’s leaders want Michigan to become the advanced battery capital of the world, and believe Professor Sastry’s company will help drive us there.
Faculty like Professor Sastry are critical to our state for the additional fact that they serve as role models of creativity for our students.
Right now we have a student organization called MPowered that is dedicated to creating student entrepreneurs.
Their signature event is 1,000 Pitches, a campus competition to generate business plans. The idea is to get students to develop at least 1,000 proposals – plans for creating new businesses, developing new products, or improving communities. In the first year of competition, students generated just over 1,000 business plans.
This past fall – the second year for 1,000 Pitches – the students went crazy. They submitted nearly 2,200 ideas. Particularly promising is that the students most represented among the finalists were freshmen, which tells me our youngest students are really focused on making a change.
An equally important feature of 1,000 Pitches is that venture capital firms here in Michigan support this competition, and reward the best ideas. Students then use their winnings to continue developing their plans.
I love these competitions. Grand Valley recently held its first annual Regional Idea Pitch Competition that brought together aspiring entrepreneurs from GVSU and other colleges and universities from throughout western Michigan.
I love that these competitions attract both students and venture capitalists eager for creative thinking.
Most of these ideas will not come to fruition. We know that. What is really at the heart of this competition is that young people learn to push their ideas out there and be willing to take risks.
I mentioned Thomas Edison earlier, and he once observed, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Jason Bornhorst knows this well. He graduated from Michigan after a productive undergraduate career that saw him found and, in his words, fail a company. It was an Internet venture that started out strong, but because of poor planning and inexperience, it collapsed just as quickly as it came to life.
Jason says failure was the best thing that could have happened, because it taught him about success. He went on to create another company, a mobile application firm called Mobil33t, as well as create a free iPhone app called DoGood.
DoGood has a simple function: Encourage one good deed each day. For example, one day your iPhone prompts you, “Leave a quarter inside a pay phone today.” Another day it’s “Organize a family dinner tonight.” Or “Beautify your world today.”
These daily actions seem pretty effortless. But when you amplify these individual acts of kindness by hundreds of thousands, the impact of DoGood is impressive. Jason calculates that users have carried out some 350,000 good deeds in DoGood’s first eight months.
DoGood has just now hit a milestone. The app is being purchased by Tonic, an online media company focused on sharing good things happening around the world. They plan to make DoGood ubiquitous, with a presence on mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter, and other global sites.
Yesterday, Jason joined me in testifying before the Michigan Senate’s subcommittee on higher education appropriations. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see a graduate talk about a major media company purchasing something he created. Like Larry Page when he dreamt about Google, Jason is 23.
Jason also helped create an incubator space in Ann Arbor called TechArb, where right now eight different student start-ups are testing their ideas. It’s fantastic exposure and experience for students.
Jason now works for Mobiata and creates mobile travel applications. Mobiata was founded in Minnesota, and its creator moved the company to Michigan for the keyboard-ready pool of engineers like Jason. Jason himself is originally from Ohio and now calls Michigan home.
And so we see that an entrepreneurial culture not only creates jobs, it attracts them, too. We don’t yet know where a company like Mobil33t will go, or if TechArb holds the next great invention. But we do know there is success in university start-ups, both from students and faculty.
Nationwide, nearly 3,400 university startups are succeeding. In 2008, the most recent year we have data, universities were responsible for some 600 new companies, including 19 throughout Michigan.
When we think of entrepreneurs, we should not limit ourselves to mobile applications, medical devices, and technologies created in a laboratory. We need to promote social entrepreneurs just as enthusiastically for the long-term good they can generate in our communities.
I think of a start-up like the Sphinx Organization, which is based in Detroit and works to increase the number of black and Latino musicians in our nation’s orchestras.
Sphinx is the brainchild of Aaron Dworkin, who as a U-M music student wanted to see more musicians who looked like him – an African-American. Sphinx creates opportunities for young musicians through various approaches, including workshops, competitions, scholarships and summer institutes.
The Grand Rapids Symphony is a Sphinx partner, and in fact has two concerts next month celebrating a Latino composer.
It is a real tribute to Sphinx that since its creation 13 years ago, the number of African-American musicians in America’s largest orchestras has doubled. It’s because a social entrepreneur like Aaron Dworkin wanted to change the world, and has.
Right now, our faculty are teaching two new courses in social entrepreneurship for students who say – as many college students do – that they want to make a difference.
They are wrestling with issues such as how to make fresh produce accessible and affordable to impoverished Detroiters, or how to make the Internet available in rural Africa. These are complicated issues, and students are working to develop sustainable solutions that will improve lives.
So whether focusing on fresh food or mobile apps, students are moving from ideas, to innovation, to impact.
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As leaders throughout western Michigan, you play an important role in advancing the entrepreneurial spirit in our state by connecting with students and supporting this state of mind. Because a state of mind – one of increased education – is what Michigan must become to prosper in the 21st century.
When I talk about connecting with students, I mean students at U-M, or Grand Valley, or Davenport, or Grand Rapids Community College. All of our colleges and universities play a critical role in the state’s economic future, as do you.
First and foremost, you are role models. You may lead a large, multi-dimensional institution. You may be one of three people in the organization. You may be beholden to voters, shareholders, or the venture capitalists supporting your work. Whatever the setting, you are making decisions – good decisions – that drive the momentum of an organization.
And I bet you have also stumbled along the way. I know I have, and every time I learned from it.
These lessons of success and setbacks are critical to students. And there is no better time for them to take risks, taste defeat, and celebrate success than in a college environment, where they can learn and grow, professionally and personally.
Will every college student in Michigan start a company? Of course not. But they will need the critical and creative thinking skills essential to today’s workplace.
Case in point: At U-M, we’ve been working hard to expand our relationships with community colleges around the state. I’m particularly pleased that since launching this outreach initiative in 2006, we have doubled the transfer students from Grand Rapids Community College enrolling in Ann Arbor.
Helping us in this effort has been Odilia Garcia, a 2008 graduate of Central High School, who is working to attract Grand Rapids transfer students – particularly Latino students – to Michigan.
Odilia has repeatedly volunteered to visit Grand Rapids Community College and encourage students to continue their education. And she has met with officials of the Grand Rapids Public Schools to share her experiences as a Central graduate and as someone who wants to see more Grand Rapids students applying to U-M.
Superintendent Bernard Taylor and School Board President Catherine Mueller have been strong supporters of building a bigger pipeline from Grand Rapids to Ann Arbor. I thank them, and I commend Odilia for encouraging her peers to strive for a four-year degree. We absolutely must raise our expectations about a college education in our state, and she is making that possible.
Because it is spring break at U-M this week, Odilia is home here in Grand Rapids and I believe she is with us today. Odilia, would you please let people know you are here?
As leaders, I encourage you to find ways to interact with students. I am a huge advocate of internships, because they are a win-win situation for students and the organizations that hire them. Several western Michigan organizations – from the Grand Rapids Public Library and Apjohn Ventures Fund in Kalamazoo, to the Holland Museum, and Steelcase – all have opened their doors to our students, and I appreciate the critical opportunities they provide.
Statewide, Michigan’s colleges and universities are partnering with organizations such as the West Michigan Strategic Alliance to keep our students in the state through internships. We want to see 25,000 Michigan college students in Michigan-based internships in our first next five years, and you can make this possible.
I also encourage you to reach out to a faculty member and ask how you can play a role in building this entrepreneurial mindset. Perhaps you can be a guest lecturer. Or host students in your workplace. Or, as one of our professors says, “Come to us with a question you really want our students to gnaw at.”
All of us –university presidents, community leaders, and aspiring entrepreneurs – all of us play a role in Michigan’s future. We must commit to lifting up our economy through innovation, creativity, and collaboration.
Larry Page, the creator of Google, came back to campus a year ago to be our commencement speaker, and I love what he told our graduates: “Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting!”
This must be our mantra. Push the boundaries with ideas and innovation. Turn our students loose, to reinvent the world – as you have – with enthusiasm, talent and extraordinary dreams.
I invite you to join us.