Before he and his friend Jeff Sorensen launched optiMize—a U-M student organization that funds student-run nonprofits—Tim Pituch had little experience with social innovation or entrepreneurship. But he asked himself the question he thinks every potential entrepreneur should ask: "Why not me?"

Pituch, a second-year student in the joint U-M SPH/School of Information graduate program in health informatics, believes entrepreneurship is a skill "you can develop." As undergrads, he and Sorensen created optiMize in 2012 after seeing too many good student ideas come to naught. Through its Social Innovation Challenge, optiMize raises money ($85,000 in its first year) to fund student-run nonprofits like the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, which harvests produce from Detroit's north side.

Early on, Pituch and Sorensen received key support from Victor Strecher, SPH Director for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who advised them to "just go out and do it. You'll learn a lot more than if you plan for six months." Strecher directs the school's new annual competition for student entrepreneurs, Innovation in Action: Solutions to Public Health Challenges—a program Pituch says "makes it easy for student entrepreneurs to find what they really need."

Pituch and Sorensen now give the same advice to other U-M students working to develop start-ups: "Go out and do something, test as much as you can, validate any assumptions you might have. It really helps you move forward."

Tips for Entrepreneurial Success

Tim Pituch—whom the Michigan Daily selected as one of its 2013–2014 students of the year for his social entrepreneurship work—offers these tips for would-be entrepreneurs:

  1. Talk to everyone. A lot of potential entrepreneurs fear that if they tell someone about their idea, they'll steal it. That's not going to happen. The only way to really develop your idea is to talk about it and learn from others.
  2. Learn how to work on an interdisciplinary team. Recognize that other people's perspectives may be just as valid as your own—and that a combination of perspectives will result in something better than any individual could come up with.
  3. Think about problems before you think about ideas. Talk to people who are experiencing the problems you want to solve and to other organizations that may be working to solve those problems.
  4. Look to different contexts to try to identify solutions. Maybe something that's worked well in a clinical setting, for example, can be adapted for use in a more rural setting.
  5. Keep your eyes open. Be observant.
  6. Go to as many open events as you can—tech meet-ups, social entrepreneurship meet-ups, open-to-the public events. It's probably the best way to find resources.
  7. Be persistent. Entrepreneurship isn't rocket science. But it's a roller coaster, and if you're not convinced that what you're trying to do is something you really want to devote a lot of time and effort to, it's not going to happen.