By Alexis Menard on March 5, 2021, 1:30 PM
In celebration of the 2021 Giving Blueday event on Wednesday, March 10, the School of Management is highlighting the growth and perseverance of the Entrepreneurs Society and their faculty advisor, Dr. Witt over the last 13 years.
The Entrepreneurs Society (ES) is an academic student organization at the University of Michigan-Flint. By design, it is nimble, flexible, and serves the useful role of supporting students who wish to pursue creative new ideas. The organization began in 2008 and since then has rapidly expanded across campus to most academic disciplines. Through hard work and discipline, the Entrepreneurs Society has earned many prestigious awards based on student projects and efforts, and has also supported the Flint community in many ways.
The pillar of the organization is founder and faculty advisor, Michael Witt, PharmD, JD, Entrepreneur in Residence, and Lecturer IV in Business Law and Entrepreneurship at the UM-Flint SOM.
Background about Dr. Michael Witt, PharmD, JD
Prior to joining the University, Dr. Witt had extensive experience in new company formation, especially in the drug and medical device development arena. His academic training includes a Doctor of Pharmacy degree (PharmD) from the University of California San Francisco, and a law degree (JD), from Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland.
At CWRU, and along with Prof. Duncan Neuhauser, they started Health Matrix: A Quarterly Journal of Health Sciences Management. This journal continues today at CWRU School of Law and is presently the leading law medicine publication of its kind. After law school, he practiced corporate health care law for seven years at Warner & Stackpole, a large Boston law firm, representing hospitals, biomedical research institutions, universities, and pharmaceutical companies.
Dr. Witt taught courses on Food and Drug Law, and Health and Hospital Law, at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences. While practicing law and teaching, he published a book entitled AIDS: Legal, Ethical and Social Implications, and was also published in the American Medical Association Journal on public health research guidelines. He was instrumental in establishing hospital policies on managing the AIDS crisis across the nation and was a frequent lecturer on this topic in numerous venues.
After seven years in Boston, Dr. Witt and his young family moved to Sacramento, where he started a technology company that specialized in commercializing university-derived medical research. Over the next ten years, his company worked to develop nine drugs and fourteen medical devices using institutional and venture capital resources in California. The company worked on projects around the globe, including Helsinki, Mexico City, Alberta, Truro, and Japan. He also developed and taught a course for five years at the Harvard School of Public Health (“Commercializing Biomedical Technologies”).
After years of travel, Dr. Witt and his wife decided to move to Michigan in 1997 to raise their children in his wife’s town of Flint, Michigan. After managing MichBio, Michigan’s life science trade association, in Ann Arbor, and practicing law at Cox, Hodgman, and Giarmarco, in Troy, Dr. Witt decided to settle into teaching full-time.
“Teaching is a lifelong passion of mine,” said Dr. Witt. In 2008, he began as a Lecturer in Business Law and Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan-Flint School of Management (SOM).
History of the UM-Flint Entrepreneurs Society (2008-Present)
During his first year of teaching at UM-Flint, Dr. Witt began to realize that his undergraduate students had a few things in common: Students worked on average thirty hours per week, and they were often first-generation college students. “Our students are driven to succeed and passionate about their careers. They typically are very serious and diligent,” said Dr. Witt.
A UM-Flint student, Laurie Matheny, approached Dr. Witt about a potential project she had and didn’t know where to find resources. “The university can be a difficult place to navigate and find solutions,” said Dr. Witt.
From this experience, Matheny knew that other students could benefit from guidance and assistance. As a result, she and Dr. Witt founded the Entrepreneurs Society alongside support from Dean John Helmuth and Associate Dean Yener Kandogan. It was recognized as an academic student club at UM-Flint, in 2008, as a way to facilitate students accessing the complex university environment and to help them succeed at their career goals. Dr. Witt was named Entrepreneur in Residence for the UM-Flint SOM and given the broad mandate of encouraging creative activities and teaching entrepreneurship and business law.
The first ES President was Laurie Matheny and the first task of the new student organization was to recruit like-minded students to be a part of its activities. “It wasn’t hard,” Dr. Witt continued, “Students were excited and on-board with a club dedicated to fulfilling their passions and dreams.”
“Many of our students need something special going for them if they are to compete and succeed in getting into graduate programs, in various disciplines, into companies which interview at many fine institutions, and in focusing their career plans effectively,” Dr. Witt continued, “The Entrepreneurs Society is a way for students to get help in building their careers and pursuing their dreams. I don’t push them—they push themselves. Perhaps I might nudge them a bit. But generally, if they want to succeed, it is a lot of fun to help them.”
In 2011, Dean John Helmuth, Ph.D., pushed for the Entrepreneurs Society to join the National Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization (CEO), a network of more than 250 colleges and universities and 8,000 students. This would give more opportunities for students to network and broaden students’ perspectives while representing UM-Flint globally. Two years after joining CEO, the Entrepreneurs Society placed 2nd in two categories: Best Fundraising Event, and Best Chapter Leadership. The Entrepreneurs Society solidified its structure and started growing at a tremendous rate. Students of all majors joined, with interests in engineering, computer science, pre-med/healthcare, fine arts, and music.
The Entrepreneurs Society evolved to become focused on community outreach and building connections with outside organizations. ES conceived and helped to establish Habitat for Humanity’s Work-Live Program, a now-internationally recognized activity where a home is built for a low-income entrepreneur with the business on the first floor, and a residence upstairs. “This has been done for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and we helped to bring it back to Flint—four of such homes have been built so far,” said Dr. Witt.
Entrepreneurs Society’s members have done work with numerous other organizations over the years and facilitated the development of many careers. Students have worked with Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Genesee County Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Catholic Communities of Flint (St. Matt’s), the State of Michigan’s DEEP Program, the State of Michigan’s Rural Development Agency, the Economic Development Agency of the Small Business Administration, to name a few.
“Needless to say, these activities are expensive and time-intensive,” said Dr. Witt. Recognizing this need, 2014 ES President, Bryon Killin, BBA ’15 in Accounting, helped to start the Entrepreneurs Society Endowment Fund. This fund, approved by the University, has the sole purpose of using its investment returns to fund ES projects and activities. It has grown over the years and is beginning to generate some modest support for student activities. “Donations from students like Bryon and local donors have been graciously received and accepted. It is still very modest, and we need funding in the worst way,” said Dr. Witt.
The Endowment Fund has been important in providing funding to student projects, and, along with the School of Management support from Dean Scott Johnson, it has also funded networking opportunities and trips like the CEO conference attended by six to ten students each year.
In 2018, Entrepreneurs Society was ranked top five in Chapter Advisory and Chapter Leader under the leadership of ES President, Michael Engle, BBA ‘18 in Finance and International Business. “Michael is an amazing, organized, and dedicated young professional and his efforts laid the groundwork for solid growth,” said Dr. Witt. During Engle’s tenure, the student group also completed an EDA-funded research project and presented a report on the need for eldercare facilities in Flint and surrounding communities.
His successor, Todd Fridline, BBA ‘19 in Finance, capitalized and extended these diligent efforts, culminating in winning the 2019 Global Chapter of the Year award. This received wide recognition in the UM-Flint community. Todd Fridline also led an extraordinary team to research, design, and launch a new innovative program in Genesee County: Flint Green. Elisabeth Hamilton BBA ‘20 in Marketing and Entrepreneurship, Sean Tabor BBA ’17 in Entrepreneurship, Elijah Madar, BS ‘22 in Mechanical Engineering, and Caryn White, BBA ’20 in Marketing, worked together to research, design, build and install a novel wind/solar roof-mounted system designed to generate clean and cheap energy to a low-income residential home.
At the end of the 2018/19 academic year, the Entrepreneurs Society was recognized at the Celebrating Wolverine Excellence (CWE) banquet, an annual event for honoring and celebrating UM-Flint student contributions hosted by the Department of Student Involvement and Leadership. ES won four UM-Flint student organization awards: UM-Flint Student Organization of the year, UM-Flint Most Outstanding Community Contribution, UM-Flint Most Outstanding Student Leader (Fridline), and UM-Flint Most Outstanding Faculty Advisor (Dr. Witt).
Current Entrepreneurs Society Operations
The latest students, headed by ES President, Garrett Prince, BBA ’22 in Finance, (last semester recently graduated ES President, Giorgia Pasqui, BBA ’20 in International Business and Entrepreneurship & Innovation Management) are still striving and persevering post-COVID.
“No step for a stepper,” said Dr. Witt, channeling his Texas roots, “They continue to dip, dive, duck and dodge challenges as they arise.”
The other students in charge of ES leadership are Vice President, Helena Schutt, BBA ’22 in International Business and Marketing, Treasurer, Evan Johnson, BBA ’22 in General Business, Communications Coordinator, Drew Ferrari, M.S. in Computer Science & Information Systems, Marketing Director, Tracy Pemberton, BBA ’21 in International Business, and Ryan Hicks, MBA.
“I am most proud of their work with each other in cross-campus disciplines and with other student groups, including a session with six African-American entrepreneurs from the Black Student Union and hosting a guest lecturer in small business tax preparation with Beta Alpha Psi. Several new members are working on a Mentoring Program (Theo Ellis, Marketing), a PSA encouraging vaccine use (Christina El Zerka, Biology), and an Art Gallery project (Marquise ‘Mia’ Medal, Arts Administration). Several community businesses are being advised by other students, writing business plans, as well as a winter lecture series, featuring a noted venture capitalist from Hearst Ventures and author, Kunal Mehta, on Tuesday, March 9, 2021,” said Dr. Witt.
The three business students (Ryan Hicks, Evan Johnson, and Garrett Prince) investigated how supply chains in Flint, MI were affected by COVID-19 and how it impacts local residents. They used software from Tealbooks, a supplier intelligence company based in Toronto, ON, Canada, to evaluate the operational disruptions of shipping goods and products coming from around the world to Michigan. The end result of the survey and report was to help local businesses address supply chain disruptions while assisting in providing resources and guidance for financial relief.
Presently, Christina El Zarka, a UM-Flint CAS Biology freshman student has developed a public service announcement to educate and encourage Flint residents to take the COVID-19 vaccine in a campaign called Save Summer 2021. She is working with a number of groups, including the Genesee County Health Department, to create and distribute this public service announcement and informational video about the effectiveness of the vaccine.
In addition to student-focused projects, the Entrepreneurs Society is also involved with hosting speaker series, faculty and student spotlights, business plan training sessions, and offering professional headshots to UM-Flint students during the 2020/21 academic year.
“In reflecting on the last year and the challenges presented by the pandemic, it has been remarkable to watch the campus and community unite to help one another through this difficult time,” said Dr. Witt. Despite COVID-19 having made it harder to collaborate in-person, the Entrepreneurs Society continues to work on multiple projects with community-focused initiatives.
“It’s been a busy last few years. It’s been fun, but it’s been a challenging environment to navigate. We are still improving and have made a lot of headway, but a lot of work needs to be done,” Dr. Witt continued, “Giving Blueday at the University of Michigan-Flint is March 10th and we could use any financial support you are able to provide. Any amount is helpful, and just knowing that you are out there and willing to acknowledge these students’ efforts with your contributions is meaningful and will directly support the Flint community as well.”
To make a gift to the Entrepreneurs Society on March 10th for Giving Blueday, bookmark this website.
To make a gift right now, visit the Entrepreneurs Society Endowment Fund page.