Are entrepreneurs key to the economic recovery?


One of the "new" old buzz-words in the fight to re-stabilize Michigan's economy is "entrepreneur." Lansing's most celebrated businessman, Ransom E. Olds, was an entrepreneur. His Oldsmobile brand built the city of Lansing. As the auto economy continues to decline, many people are asking what will replace it. As part of our reWorking Michigan series, we look at how entrepreneurialism could become its own economic force.


So, YOU think you have what it takes to be an entrepreneur? Well, there are a lot of people who happen to agree with you. And there is a growing sense that you along with thousands of other people just like you are Michigan's economic future.

Entrepreneurialism isn't new, of course. And neither is the belief that you are the maker of your own destiny. But after more than a century of cradle-to-grave security that the auto industry provided for untold thousands of workers and their families, some believe Michigan's entrepreneurial spirit is a bit rusty.

"I call it the legacy of large companies," says Rob Fowler, CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan. "Generation after generation can go to work for that large company. You can go with relatively few skills. You can have a nice life and you don't really have to take a lot of risk. You're taken care of. The culture is less entrepreneurial."

The State of Michigan has had programs in place for years it hopes would kick-start an entrepreneurial culture.

Greg Main is the director of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. He says through various capital programs, the state has invested billions of dollars into start-up companies. But it's also putting money into initiatives to help entrepreneurs learn how to start and run their own businesses.

Main Initiatives

It comes in the form of SmartZones, we have 15 Smart Zones around the state," says Main. "We have the Small Business and Technology centers. There are 12 offices around the state. So virtually every county is covered now with somebody who has the skills and the knowledge to help individuals who want to start companies."

One of the companies to benefit from those initiatives is East Lansing-based Inventure Enterprises. CEO Rob Fulk says the security software the company is now marketing is based on research and work he did at Michigan State University.

Inventure is headquartered at East Lansing's Technology and Innovation Center, which is part of the regional Smart Zone. Fulk says he's looking for investors and hopes to hire as many as three dozen employees in the next three years.

"I think without the technology incubator, Smart Zone and others, it would be much more difficult," says Fulk. "They've provided free help, inexpensive consulting, office space to set up the business with the resources that are available. And help connecting us with state funding, private funding. It's a whole slew of things available to help a young business get started."

Greg Main says incubators like the Technology Innovation Center have been successful in creating jobs and new industries.

When several pharmaceutical companies left Michigan about a decade ago, the state invested resources to help displaced workers start up their own life science businesses. Main says now there are as many as 200 small pharmaceutical-based companies in the state. He says some of them are prime targets to be sold to larger companies

"When that happens," says Main, "the people who invested in the early stage companies get a return on their investment and then they can reinvest that capital back into the economy, and that's really what we're trying to get to."

Rob Fulks, who calls himself a serial entrepreneur, says this is a good time to start a business in Michigan.

"I heard from some friends who call Michigan the wild west of the business world," Says Fulk. "It's the best place in the country to start a business and get things going. With all of the incentives the help, the resources. I hear it doesn't even exist on the coasts, where you go to Silicon Valley and the East Coast to the level of help. And especially to young companies trying to get going."

But not everyone thinks enough is being done to help the entrepreneur. The Small Business Association's Rob Fowler says the state needs to cultivate the idea that anyone can start a business. And that, he says requires a complete change in the state's economic culture.

"When you talk about changing the culture" says Fowler, "you're talking about changing everything from public policy to the conversations at the dinner table. Is it in the air that you could start your own business?"

Tomorrow we'll look at the concept of economic gardening and how some people believe that growing the state's economy means nurturing the ideas and the people who are already here.

reWorking Michigan
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