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Are You MPowered?

Prateek Garg defines an entrepreneur as a person who acts on an idea - someone who brings an idea to life. He should know. As the president of MPowered Entrepreneurship, the University of Michigan junior spends a lot of time thinking, talking and living in the world of business startups and the people who make them happen.

The key to understanding entrepreneurship, Garg contends, is knowing that while most stories about entrepreneurial success focus on the original bright idea, it's really the person and the action that makes or breaks any project.

"When talking to venture capitalists, the idea doesn't matter as much as the team," he says. "If you focus on getting the right people, the right people will solve any problem."

Prior to 2007, the problem at U of M was that there weren't many options for learning about entrepreneurship available to the majority of the student body. In one of the nation's premier higher education institutions, the only classes addressing the topic were in the College of Engineering.

"Entrepreneurship is for everyone," says Garg. "The College of Literature, Science and Arts students are some of the best thinkers on campus. Some of them would be interested in entrepreneurship, but they just don't know it yet."

In the very spirit of the subject to which they wished to have greater exposure, former U of M students Isreal Vicars and Ashwin Lalendran put together a team to solve the problem. Their brilliant idea was a student group that would give students more opportunities to learn entrepreneurship practices, connect with successful entrepreneurs and test out their own entrepreneurial ideas.

The result of their teamwork was MPowered Entrepreneurship. The student-founded, student-run organization took those ideas and created events such as 1000 Pitches, gathered hundreds of students among their ranks and even successfully lobbied the university to add courses with an entrepreneurial focus in other departments.

"We created a campaign called 1000 Voices," says Garg of MPowered's effort to increase academic options for students of all majors interested in entrepreneurship.

"The voices were heard. We got the College of Literature, Science and Arts to offer more entire classes geared toward entrepreneurship. We should be getting even more courses over the next couple of years."

Courses are all well and good, but the students of MPowered aren't just waiting around for academic programs to bring the world of entrepreneurship to their peers. The organization has built a series of events intended to inspire potential entrepreneurs to get their ideas into action.

Their signature event, 1000 Pitches, is now in its fourth year. The event asks thinkers to submit venture ideas in a variety of categories, such as environment, social entrepreneurship, web and software, and more. In the first year, the event accepted 1,045 pitches. In 2011, they received a whopping 3,303 applicants.

The best pitches are invited to the 1000 Pitches Summit, where the idea-makers can connect with experts and help further develop the ideas into viable businesses. The type of ideas that have emerged aren't just your everyday business plans. Garg has seen pitches such as an idea for a device that allows iPhones to measure and track blood sugar data for diabetics.

The real prize doesn't actually come at the annual awards ceremony, but to those who walk away with a genuine business venture.

And it happens. One business borne of 1000 Pitches is ASK Interfaces. It began as a pitch for a mobile device keyboard that would allow individuals with fine motor control disabilities to use touch screen technology.

Another pitch-turned-business was proposed as a portable box that could collect energy during the day and provide energy at night. It may sound like science fiction, but it's now June Energy, and the box can charge cell phones.

It's no coincidence that the best ideas to come out of the 1000 Pitches event share a similar "save the world" theme. The participants learn through the event that a great venture doesn't begin with the idea; it begins with finding a problem worth solving.

Of course, there's quite a learning curve between identifying a worthy problem and launching a successful business. Another one of MPowered's events, the MPowered Career Fair, is geared toward connecting students with prospective employers. Unlike traditional jobs fairs, at which students line up to vie for an introduction to the big names in business, the MPowered Career Fair exclusively features small businesses.

"Students working at small businesses or startups get much more real career experience," says Garg. "You're not just working in one position, you have to work at many to be successful. We want to connect students with ideas for their own startups to the right business who will help move their idea forward."

The 2012 MPowered Career Fair will take place tomorrow (January 12) and will feature more than 90 employers. These employers might hire students to develop their own ideas, or mentor them until they're ready to jump into their own business venture.

MPowered intends to continue building those connections between local small business and the entrepreneurial students of U of M. Though the student organization has grown at an incredible rate in just four years, like any sustainable business plan MPowered continues to look for opportunities to grow. According to Garg, the organization is looking to further strengthen the connection to local businesses.

"One of our biggest goals this year was to create a student body who could communicate with each other often. One thing we're missing is an entire community who can reach out with each other. We want to host events where people see each other over and over again and feel those connections with like-minded people."

After all the time Garg, who is a business administration and industrial operations engineering major, has spent working with entrepreneurs while helping to continually develop MPowered, the natural question for himself as his graduation approaches is: "What's your big idea?"

"I actually don't have a big idea," he says. But true to MPowered's mission that doesn't mean he's not involved with a plan.

"I'm putting together a team for a startup that I will be working on during my senior year," Garg says. "We don't have the idea yet, but we have some team members I'm actually looking forward with to working with next year.

"Ideas are everywhere," he continues, "and don't really mean anything. It's about having the right people on your team."

For a university with an eye on the cutting edge of the new economy, it seems U of M is fortunate to have the students of MPowered on its team. From pushing for new courses to continuing to develop events like their new Startup Weekend, "an intense 54-hour event that focuses on building a web or mobile applications" business. Can a viable business be created in a weekend? If the past is an indicator, MPowered could be just the thing to prepare U of M students to make it happen.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.


All photos by Doug Coombe

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