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North by Midwest conference held in Ann Arbor

By Steve Zoski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 6, 2012

Members of MPowered, Grow Detroit — an organization that promotes entrepreneurship in the state of Michigan — and Startup Weekend, a 56-hour entrepreneurship event hosted around the country, joined former Michigan linebacker Dhani Jones and representatives from two start-up company advising groups to hold the first ever North by Midwest event in the Innovatrium on East University.

The South by Southwest Festival — an annual film, music, and technology event held in Austin, Texas — inspired University entrepreneurial leaders to host a new social networking gathering for start-up enthusiasts that included a panel discussion and a meet-and-greet at Sava’s State Street Cafe.

Jeffrey Epstein, chief ambassador of the start-up company Ambassador, which was funded and guided by the start-up accelerator TechStar, joined Zach Steindler, a University alum who helped found Olark to answer questions. Ken Wohl, a representative from Grow Detroit facilitated the discussion by moderating questions from the audience and Twitter users who also submitted questions.

Business sophomore Nancy Xiao, MPowered vice president and the organizer of the event, said Techstar and YCombinator are two of the best accelerators in the country.

“The actual acceptance rate (for Techstar and YCombinator) is lower than Harvard,” Xiao said.

Xiao said incubators work at a slower pace than accelerators, which provide funding to start-up companies for longer periods of time, but are less selective.

“The difference between an incubator and an accelerator is that an accelerator is a set process where it’s like a three-month thing,” Xiao said. “Because there’s a little bit of a push that you have three months to do this, people tend to do some really great things.”

Xiao said she was inspired to create NXNW after attending SXSW, and she pursued the idea after recognizing that Ann Arbor could be a place where start-ups could thrive.

In an interview after the event, Epstein, whose company is based in Birmingham, Mich., said crafting a start-up company is easier for today’s college students than ever before.

“Start-ups are more prevalent,” Epstein said. “I’m thirty-one so … Internet start-ups were not really around. I didn’t know any one from college or through law school. They were all from after I graduated law school.”

Epstein said entrepreneurship appeals to a unique personality type, and entrepreneurs are often hesitant to commit to more traditional professions.

“I think entrepreneurship is really a lifestyle choice,” he said. “You sort of make the decision that you don’t want to be on this pre-determined path.”

Epstein said college students are in the best position to develop start-up companies due to fewer family constraints and increased flexibility early in life. He added that entrepreneurs often lack the financial stability that comes with a more established career.

“The highs and lows are ridiculous. In the same day you feel like you’re going to get bought out for $20 million and then you feel like you’re going to go broke,” Epstein said. “It’s a complete roller-coaster.”

Wohl said the event was intended to provide the University’s entrepreneurs with a social opportunity to meet like-minded people and encouraged students with an interest in entrepreneurship to attend more GrowDetroit events.

“Most of the things I’ve learned, if they’re not from failure, they’re from people that I’ve known who’ve told me,” Wohl said. “And the only way that happens is by me hanging out with people who are doing similar things.”

Zaffar Razzacki, a University alum and account executive for Google, sponsored the panel and said he hopes the event was worthwhile for students.

“It’s hot to be an entrepreneur these days,” Razzacki said. “So it’s kind of like coming to a party. At that party you might form some meaningful relationships, but most of the time everyone’s drunk. So realistically maybe in this room, out of like 150 people, there might be one or two kids who do something that makes sense. For the most part, the true entrepreneurs who actually have viable ideas are few and far in between.

Thaki Chowhury, a Wayne State University student who attended the event, said he appreciates GrowDetroit’s efforts to create a strong entrepreneurship presence in Michigan.

“They’re really trying to build a community of like-minded people specifically targeted at the start-up community…” Chowdhury said.

LSA sophomore Samantha Fischer, who invited a Detroit entrepreneur to the event using Twitter, said the panel discussion was helpful.

“Having two people from very different backgrounds with the same interests, them talking together is a great thing,” Fischer said.