Trail-Blazing Entrepreneurs Share Their Personal and Professional Stories with U-M Students at 2015 Entrepalooza

Shannon Beeman
September 29, 2015

In keeping with this year’s Entrepalooza theme, “Entrepreneurship through a Kaleidoscope,” seven entrepreneurs from highly diverse backgrounds shared their personal and professional stories of entrepreneurial passion, challenge and triumph with U-M students on Friday, Sept. 25. The annual entrepreneurship conference is co-sponsored by the Zell Lurie Institute and its partners at the University of Michigan and in the Ann Arbor community.

The series of TED-style talks was led by Aaron Dworkin ─ a violinist, poet, diversity advocate and arts entrepreneur ─ who returned to his alma mater this fall to assume the position of dean at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Dworkin is the founder of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which works to engage black and Latino youth in classical music and increase their representation in the nation’s top symphony orchestras.

His accolades ─ including being named a MacArthur Fellow and serving as President Obama’s first appointee to the National Council on the Arts ─ belie Dworkin’s humble beginnings in Monticello, New York, where his white Catholic mother and black Jehovah’s Witness father put him up for adoption two weeks after he was born. Two white Jewish neuroscientists adopted him and lived first in New York City and later in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Learning to play the violin at age 5 opened up a new world for young Dworkin. “It was my violin that empowered me and made me feel relevant to the world around me,” he told students. Years later, when Dworkin enrolled as a music student at Michigan, he began to explore ways to take his relationship with the violin and achieve that relevance on a broader scale.

“Michigan empowered me to be relevant to my art form and my community,” Dworkin said. “As an undergraduate, I had an opportunity to be entrepreneurial and build an organization that was relevant.” His idea for the Sphinx Organization began as a music competition for minorities and grew into what has become a leading performing arts organization dedicated to changing lives through the power of diversity and the arts.

Now, as dean of the SMTD, Dworkin is bringing his background as an arts entrepreneur into play through the launch of the EXCEL program, which provides entrepreneurship training and career services for all U-M students engaged in the performing arts. “We want students to wake up every day doing the work we’ve empowered them to do,” he said.

Following Dworkin’s TED talk, the six other featured entrepreneurs spoke about the inspiration, adversity or deep desire that prompted them to launch and grow their entrepreneurial companies. Here are a few highlights of their TED talks:

Mary Lemmer, co-founder and CEO of Foodscape, said: “I didn’t choose to be an entrepreneur. I just wanted to create things.” Her entrepreneurial journey began at age 17 when she launched Iorio’s Gelato in Ann Arbor. Her words of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs included: “Find something enjoyable to do.  Be optimistic, honest and true to yourself. Burn your fears, because that will allow you to accomplish things you thought were impossible.”

Dawn White, co-founder, president and chief technology officer of Accio, noted that entrepreneurial enterprises and careers rarely follow a straight-line path to success. She encouraged young entrepreneurs not to fixate on a single idea and to look for tools and people who can help them along the way. “There’s never been a better time to be an entrepreneur,” she remarked.

Nate Aschenback, co-founder of GameStart, recalled that when he was growing up, playing video games was an escape. Not so today. “Games are creative and generative, and give kids the ability to create bonds and build community,” he observed. Omitting play and fun from the learning experience is “like running a marathon on stilts.”

Justin DeLay, co-founder and chief marketing officer of TempoIQ, reflected on the importance of helping yourself, helping someone else and asking for help. “Needing help is counterintuitive to the image of a self-made entrepreneur,” he noted. “Yet the ultimate job of an entrepreneur is to build a business that scales ─ and the only way to do that is to ask for help.” For many, admitting they need help and asking for it can be a humbling experience. “But the best thing about help is that it helps.”

Lisa McLaughlin, co-founder and CEO of Workit Health, narrated a profound life story of how alcohol abuse during her student days took her to “rock bottom” and how recovery from her addition led to her to become a social entrepreneur. “My friend taught me how to live healthy and turn my life around,” she said. “For the past seven years, I’ve been working with top companies on social issues.” McLaughlin shared a quote that reflected her approach to entrepreneurship: “Do you want to be a poet or do you want to write poetry?”

Jill Ford, special advisor to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, came to the Motor City from the San Francisco Bay area to head Detroit’s innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives. “I’ve embraced making intellectual choices about what I want to do, and being passionate and brave enough to make those choices,” she remarked. Many of Ford’s choices reflect her desire to live a life by design. “I choose to be curious. I choose to be generous. I choose to be fearless. I choose to be relevant. I chose Detroit because I’m truly fascinated by the opportunity I see following its bankruptcy to give people a chance to be relevant, locally and globally.”