Small businesses employ half of the private workforce and generate about 70 percent of the country's new jobs each year.
But about 40 percent of native Michigan college graduates are now leaving the state to find work.
Hoping to put a plug in that brain drain, Michigan colleges and universities now offer classes and majors in entrepreneurship, as well as conferences, competitions, and programs devoted to the independent spirit.
A prominent University of Michigan economist thinks this is a very good idea.
"I fear that most people who have lost their jobs are going to need to create their own new jobs, and not wait for some business to hire them," said Donald R. Grimes, senior research associate at U-M's Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy.
Grimes believes students in many fields should take entrepreneurship courses, and he says the focus on re-training at all community colleges should be broadened to include entrepreneurship.
"(The focus on re-training) seems to have ignored the need to teach people how to start their own business, in any field, from cutting hair to cutting lawns or even writing software for the I-phone, or even figuring out how to make money as a news blogger," he said. "People need help in understanding regulations, taxes, writing up funding proposals, and even thinking through ideas."
Eastern Michigan University started a major in entrepreneurship in 1998-99, and its College of Business recently held its annual entrepreneurship conference to show students how to get started in a variety of fields.
EMU junior Melissa Heatlie hopes to eventually earn an MBA with a concentration in entrepreneurship at EMU. She's not sure if she'll stay in Michigan.
"But one thing is certain," she said. "I have faith that the economy in Michigan will rebound from this tough economic time and come out on top. During this rough patch, I think the citizens are really learning how to become innovative again."
We couldn't find a single institute of higher learning in Michigan that does not offer something for students considering going into business for themselves.
Michigan State University offers a specialization in entrepreneurship, for instance, while both Washtenaw Community College and Hope College offer entrepreneurship certificates. Cleary University's BBA in entrepreneurship requires courses in entrepreneurship; creativity and innovation; marketing the new business; new business finance; and negotiations. Central Michigan University also offers a major in entrepreneurship that prepares students to begin or take over a business or work in a not-for-profit organization. Kettering University last month received a national award from the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN) for teaching students how to become innovators. Kettering's "Entrepreneurship Across the Curriculum" program will eventually expose all students to entrepreneurship and innovation concepts multiple times during their college years.
Each fall, U-M's MPowered Entrepreneur Club holds 1,000 Pitches, a campus-wide entrepreneurship competition where students can pitch their ideas for new inventions, businesses and non-profit organizations. The winning pitches in each category received $1,000.
"MPowered's goal for the 1000 Pitches competition was to get Michigan students thinking entrepreneurially, and to prove to them that you don't have to be an engineering or business student to start a business," said club president Lauren Leland.
Winners included a group of six graduate engineering students who want to create a device that removes the clots that become lodged in the blood vessels of stroke patients; a student who pitched the idea of a vibrating metronome that would attach to a musician's arm so he or she could keep beat individually without the distraction of trying to hear a traditional metronome; and a student who pitched the establishment of a Renewable Energy Science Foundation in the state that would promote renewable energy research.
Students want to stay in Michigan.
"They just don't know where they can go," said Doug Neal, director of The University of Michigan College of Engineering Center for Entrepreneurship (CEF), which was formed two years ago to facilitate an entrepreneurial mindset within U-M.. "Our small businesses in the area – which are the economic driving force of the future – can't seem to get access to this talent."
So U-M recently held its third annual MPowered Career Fair, where about 2,000 students across all majors learned about getting jobs and internships with 80 small companies and start-up firms.
"That was just one example of the many programs we have to stop the brain drain and increase economic development and entrepreneurship," Neal said.
Neal is a self-described "serial entrepreneur" who moved back to Michigan from California to raise his family. He said the center's 30 programs have helped more than 3,000 students and helped facilitate hundreds of student ideas into more than 30 student companies in Michigan.
As an example, he cited Mobiata, an Ann Arbor company founded in December of 2008 that creates top-selling mobile travel applications. Mobiata was founded by Ben Kazez, a Minnesotan who heard about all the exciting things happening in Ann Arbor. He moved here, connected with students in the U-M Business Accelerator (TechArb), and hired several of them to take his company to the next level, Neal said.
U-M has experienced tremendous growth in research over the last 10 years, Neal said.
"So the level of innovation is rising consistently, yet the opportunities to innovate and create and effect change locally have never been greater," he said. "In many ways our efforts to foster entrepreneurship within the university are to address both those needs. To help take advantage of the tremendous technology and innovation that’s happening. And to stimulate economic growth in the area."
Heatlie has discovered lots of organizations willing to help the new entrepreneur get started, including SPARK; Bizdom; the SBTDC (Small Business & Technology Development Center); and B Side: The Business Side of Youth.
"I think if citizens learn to utilize these resources to harness their innovations and ideas, then the future of Michigan is brighter than most may think," she said.