Ross Undergrads Pitching Business Ideas That Serve Detroit Residents

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Ross BBA juniors have a lot of big ideas on their minds this week — solving some of Detroit’s critical issues such as job creation, health, and transportation.  

They’ll be pitching those ideas Oct. 23-24 before their peers and a panel of outside experts as part of the Zell Lurie Institute Entrepreneurship Challenge.

The challenge itself is part of the Ross Integrative Semester under the MERGE curriculum. Juniors apply their knowledge from four courses — business law and ethics, communications, behavioral theory in management, and operations — to a semester-long business development project. Students develop a business around a theme from one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

This year there’s a new twist — focusing their ideas on serving Detroit residents.

“One of our big challenges as faculty is getting students grounded in the realities of creating and running a real business,” says Lecturer Amy Young, faculty coordinator for the Ross Integrative Semester. “With the local focus we can bring in experts to speak about the current issues facing the city and the unique resources and challenges of working in a particular community.” For example, students will hear from Cat Johnson, COO of Detroit-based nonprofit The Empowerment Plan, at the pitch event kickoff.

Students this year focus their business, nonprofit, or B-corporation business ideas around the UN goals of good health and well-being, decent work and economic growth, responsible consumption and production, and sustainable cities.

Sophia Savas, BBA ’19, says developing the business plan and the pitch pulls together all the theory from separate classes and gets students to apply them in a practical way.

“It’s been a great challenge to extend my thinking into what the purpose of a business really is, and how all these pieces of knowledge we’ve acquired play different roles that allow a business to create value in society,” she says.

Savas and her teammates are working on the jobs and economic growth theme, and decided to address the lack of reliable transportation in the city. Their idea is a bicycle company modeled after Toms Shoes, which donates a pair of shoes to low-income children for every pair sold. The team wants the donated bikes to go to Detroit residents without transportation who live within biking distance of their jobs.

Shirley Che, BBA ’19, and her team will address the issue of access to healthy food, along with a teaching component on how to prepare fresh food. She says presenting the idea to peers going through the same process — along with outside judges — forces the students to ask themselves critical questions every step of the way.

“It’s a little scary because the people you’re pitching to are working on the same project and have considered a lot of what you’re thinking about, so you really have to anticipate the critiques and think about all the alternatives,” she says. “We have to constantly question the validity of our idea and make sure we’re delivering the best product.”

Each of the eight sections of the junior class will have their own rooms and hear each team in the section pitch Monday. Students vote for the winner of each section. Joining them are outside judges — entrepreneurs and investors from places such as Endeavor Detroit, Detroit Venture Partners, Ann Arbor SPARK, and NextServices. Each student on the winning section team receives $100.

The eight finalist teams will pitch Tuesday and the winners will be judged by Professors Joe Arvai, Michael Gordon, and Gretchen Spreitzer.

Learning how to tailor a business pitch or proposal while the coursework is fresh is a valuable learning experience, says Scarlett Ong Rui Chern, BBA ’19, whose long-term interest lies in entrepreneurship. But it also forces her to apply all the knowledge she’s acquired from the undergraduate program, not just the courses this semester.

“Besides the current courses that we are learning this semester, courses from the sophomore winter semester, for example, Strategy 290, have been helpful in evaluating competitors, suppliers, customers, and the industry itself,” she says. “The ability to pull together all your experiences into an idea or project is important when you’re trying to craft a viable business idea.”

After the pitch competition students continue to develop the business plan through the semester. They’re challenged to envision their operation at scale — a full-size business of at least 50 employees. That will be part of a final report they submit for the semester.

“Developing a larger organization requires knowledge of how all the pieces of a business fit together in a well integrated system,” says Young. “Decisions made about one aspect of the business will have implications for other aspects. For example, a decision to create a non-profit rather than a for-profit entity will affect whether you are able to recruit top talent or achieve a particular type of organizational culture. The goal is to create compatibility among all elements of a business, as this results in an efficient system. We want to give undergraduates an experience of what it’s like to start up a business. They don’t have to wait until they graduate and start working to realize the full potential of the knowledge they have, and how it can add value to society.”