Business, Charles Fry likes to observe, is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The self-described “blue-collar entrepreneur” has done a lot of perspiring during his multifaceted career as the founder and chief technology officer of a venture-backed IT outsourcing firm, an independent business consultant, a family farmer in northwestern Ohio and, currently, an executive at the Ann Arbor-based software company Pillar Technology. Over the past decade, Fry has brought lessons-learned from his hard-scrabble background to the Zell Lurie Institute, where he mentors students one-on-one, speaks to entrepreneurial-studies classes and roundtable sessions and judges business plans at the Michigan Business Challenge and Dare to Dream grant program. “The University of Michigan has some spectacularly successful entrepreneurs, but you don’t have to achieve an IPO or earn a billion dollars to succeed,” he says. “I represent the day-to-day entrepreneurial guy who is trying to make a living, so I can talk candidly about the realities of launching a start-up. Students appreciate that.”
Fry is also a pragmatist who quickly strips away the fluff and deep-dives into the business basics. “MBA students are exceptionally good at strategic thinking, research and big-picture conceptualization, but, generally, business comes down to being able to operate and execute,” he says. “A lot of business teams with great sales projections have never gone out and actually talked to customers or tried to sell their products. I encourage them to begin testing their ideas in real-world situations and building their business-operating experience.” To speed the transition from the classroom to the workplace, Pillar Technology hosts Zell Lurie Institute student interns, engaging them in a full spectrum of company projects, board meetings and customer presentations. “Learning and doing are two different things,” Fry says. “That’s where the Zell Lurie Institute pulls away from the pack. Many of the Institute’s faculty are, or have been, very successful entrepreneurs, and its programs are phenomenal in providing students with hands-on experience.”
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