A History of Inspiring Innovative Thinkers

Rachel Gutierrez’s inventory of carefully curated coffees are the end product of her interaction with the Zell Lurie Institute.

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In 1927, Michigan was first…the first university in the country to offer a course in small business management. In the 90 years since, thousands have graduated from the institution with an entrepreneurial mindset and the tools to take them to the top.

“U-M gave me the confidence to call myself a CEO.”

Aisha Bowe, CEO of STEMBoard

Two of the earliest innovators started doing business before they even left school. In his junior year, Sam Zell (BA ’63, JD ’66) managed off-campus student apartments. A fraternity brother, Robert Lurie (BSE ’64, MSE ’66), later joined Zell in his work. When Zell left Ann Arbor after graduating from the law school, he sold his interest to Lurie, who then significantly expanded the business, acquiring properties of his own in southeast Michigan.

Three years later, Lurie followed Zell to Chicago, and together they built Equity Group Investments—a significant player in the national real estate marketplace—and many offshoots.

Tony Fadell (BS ’91) founded not one but two software businesses before he graduated from Michigan. Those experiences paved the way for an early-stage career in consumer electronics that culminated in a seven-year stint with Apple. While working in Cupertino, he created the concept and initial design for the iPod and later oversaw the special projects group tasked with bringing new versions of the portable media player to market.

“[At U-M,] I had the opportunity to take a lot of project-based classes,” Fadell noted, “and that learning allowed me to explore what I wanted.”

One key to success for the Lozano sisters was to get involved with optiMize.

The biggest key to success for entrepreneurs Virginia (BFA ’15) and Beatriz (BFA ’16) Lozano was getting involved with optiMize, an incubator associated with U-M through the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Through optiMize, the sisters were able to refine their idea for Leesta, an interactive educational experience that celebrates the many contributions of women throughout history—contributions that are often left out of textbooks. “OptiMize provided mentors and peers who shared our vision for social change,” explained Virginia. “And, in 2015, we participated in their summer fellowship program, which really helped us get our company off the ground.”

Larry Page (BS ’95) arrived on campus as the College of Engineering was promoting student teams as a means of gaining real-world experience. Page joined the 1993 solar car team, which sparked his interest in sustainable transportation systems. That interest prompted him to approach U-M administrators with a novel idea: “I tried to get them to build a [green] monorail between Central and North Campus.”

Eventually, Page turned away from transportation to focus on co-creating a software system that searched for information on the web. Today, he serves as CEO of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google and its subsidiaries.

An entrepreneurial spirit took hold of Aisha Bowe while she studied at U-M.

Aisha Bowe (BSE ’08, MSE ’09) grew up being fascinated not by software but by the sky. She came to U-M to study aerospace engineering, aiming to complete a combined bachelor’s/master’s degree. That and an internship at NASA kept her busy until graduation. In the eight years that followed, she settled into a research position and helped the agency with its diversity efforts. “I discovered that there were so many talented people out there, but they didn’t have the access and exposure they needed to succeed,” she explained. “I wanted to help with that.”

Bowe had taken an entrepreneurship course at Michigan. What she learned in the classroom inspired her to leave NASA and establish a startup called STEMBoard. It’s a tech company that creates smart systems and software solutions for defense and enterprise clients. STEMBoard also creates opportunities for African-American youth to enter these career fields by offering tech camps and courses. “I’m so happy that I did this,” she said. “U-M gave me the confidence to call myself a CEO.”

The prospect of becoming a CEO is what first drew Rachel Gutierrez (MBA ’15) to U-M’s Ross School of Business. And a trip home for the holidays gave her an idea for how to achieve that goal. “My family was drinking coffee that claimed to be pumpkin-flavored, but actually had no natural flavoring in it. Neither did the add-in sweeteners we used,” she said. “I knew there had to be a better way.”

That’s where the Zell Lurie Institute (established in 1999 by Sam Zell and the widow of Robert Lurie) came in. Immersion in ZLI’s experiential learning opportunities—special courses, a business plan competition, meetings with an entrepreneur-in-residence—helped Gutierrez bring her idea to life. After graduation, she moved to New York City and set up Via Bom Dia (literally “the way to a good morning”), a coffee roasting company that combines carefully curated combinations of beans from all over the world with natural spices and other flavorings.

She’s already caught the eye of lifestyle leader Martha Stewart, who nominated Via Bom Dia for one of her American Made Awards.

For these eight alumni, there is no question that a Michigan education laid the foundation for future achievements. And the opportunities for current students to explore entrepreneurship at U-M just keep growing.

Consider the numbers. In recent years, the Zell Lurie Institute and the Center for Entrepreneurship have been joined by at least 13 related centers and programs, in settings from the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance to that of public health. More than 30 student organizations have been founded with an entrepreneurial focus. And 120+ courses covering entrepreneurship have been developed, culminating in a campus-wide minor in the subject.

Ninety years ago, U-M was the innovator in entrepreneurial education. As Leaders and Best, it’s a position we plan to maintain.