Creativity in Entrepreneurship Course Works With Area Businesses to Challenge Students to Implement Ideas, ‘Be Epic’
Dr. Eric Fretz (A.B. 1989, M.S. ‘02, Ph.D. ‘10) is used to shaking things up. Before he received his doctorate at Michigan, Fretz already had a 20 year Navy career under his belt, along with experience in leadership, running small businesses, and teaching team skills. That’s why, in 2014, when he was asked to put together a course on entrepreneurial creativity to support a new initiative in entrepreneurship at U-M, he wasn’t fazed.
“My central idea, based on the requests from the curriculum committee, was to teach students about creativity and personality while doing hands-on testing, so they can see their own results and really understand how certain traits fit together in a team,” says Fretz. “I wanted to create authentic tasks that people can work on in a meaningful way and share with others.”
Hoping to get students personally invested in their learning, Fretz decided to flip the script for his course, called Entrepreneurial Creativity (currently cross-listed as ALA 261/Psych 218). “I told students that they had to do a creative project throughout the semester for one third of their grade, without telling them what that project should be,” he says. “Just that it should be impressive. That was the only rule.”
The course began with 80 students and one GSI, but it has become so popular in the ensuing years that Fretz now has nearly 300 students per semester, with a lengthy wait list. Students form groups of two to five team members, working together to come up with an idea for a business, a problem to solve, a work of art, or some cool new invention. They then spend the semester developing that idea, receiving advice and feedback from Fretz and their GSIs, and ultimately presenting their projects to the class at the end of the semester. The teams that receive the most positive feedback are selected to present their projects at what Fretz calls the “Big Show”: a panel of local Ann Arbor business incubators, leaders, and venture capitalists who volunteer to offer advice and connect the groups with investors and mentors to further develop their ideas. The panel is a collaboration with the director or entrepreneurship at UMSI, Dr. Nancy Benovich-Gilby.
“As director of the University's student venture accelerator, it's great to see all the innovative ideas being incubated in courses like this,” says Ryan Gourley, director of TechArb and a Big Show panelist. “I know for many of the students the course represents one of their first forays into entrepreneurship. The skills and mindset they develop through the course will serve them well in whatever career path they ultimately pursue.”
In fact, throughout the years, students have come up with some pretty “epic” ideas, a number of which have developed into full-fledged businesses, says Fretz. One group developed a plan to make money at a summer music festival, and they did—a lot of it. Another created a laser toaster that can burn any image on a piece of bread. One group hacked the wireless routers at the UGLi (with permission, of course) to provide the number of devices connected to them, which allowed them to estimate how many people were on each floor and present that information on a map of each building for would-be studiers. Another alumnus turned an herbal energy drink that he’d been brewing in his dorm room into a legitimate business.
Fretz says that over and over again his students rise to the challenge of dreaming big and making those dreams reality—in just a single semester.
One of Fretz’s teams this past fall included LSA sophomore and Michigan resident Everest Guerra, who worked to develop an on-demand toiletry service for travelers, called TravelKit, with partners Max Scher, Jordan Schore, and Anthony Aronovitz. His team came up with the idea to ship name-brand toiletries to a customer’s destination, saving them the headache of dealing with TSA rules or being forced to use substandard hotel products.
“My favorite part about the course was its structure,” says Guerra. “It gave students the privilege to pursue knowledge in areas of their choice.”
Guerra’s team was one of those selected to present to the end of semester Big Show panel. His presentation consisted of a mobile application walkthrough video that showed how TravelKit worked, and a question-and-answer session. He also received valuable feedback from the panelists on how to further improve the product.
“Throughout the process, I learned how companies price products and how to use consumer research to create a target customer, and I learned effective communication skills for working with hotel managers and executives,” says Guerra. “Much of the information that I learned throughout the course is information that cannot be taught in a traditional classroom setting.”
And although he completed the course last semester, Guerra continues to flex his entrepreneurial muscle: He and his team are forging ahead in developing TravelKit for the market.
“This was one of my favorite courses that I have taken at U-M because it granted me the freedom to take creative control over my entire semester, allowing me to grow and gain expertise in areas that I am deeply passionate about,” he says.