UM Growth Capital News: NEF Builds its Capacity to Help Entrepreneurs Pursue New Business Opportunities

Over the past three years as president of New Enterprise Forum (NEF), Gerry Roston has spearheaded efforts to refocus NEF’s support for entrepreneurs, broaden its coaching services, improve members’ benefits and energize the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. In February the Ann Arbor-based nonprofit observed its 28th year, and this month, Roston hands the mantle of leadership to Bill McPherson, the managing director at McPherson Commercial Capital and a Ross School of Business MBA graduate.

“We are being proactive to make our organization more relevant and to create value in today’s changing world,” Roston says. “When we started in 1986, we were the only game in town. Now there are many entrepreneurial organizations operating in the state.” As a result, NEF has refined the scope of services to focus on helping entrepreneurs communicate more effectively with potential investors. “We work with high-growth-potential companies that need access to capital to pursue business opportunities across a wide breadth of sectors, including medical devices, software systems, alternative energy, automotive, electronics and industrial processes,” he explains. “We train entrepreneurs to speak about what they do in a way that investors expect to hear, and to talk in the language of the listeners.”

Coaching is NEF’s strong suit, according to Roston. “We’re known for our coaching services, and we’re trying to expand them,” he says, noting that NEF coaches 10 to 15 companies a year, and has helped more than 300 since its founding. “We also serve a dozen or more independent organizations in Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.” These include the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, where NEF coaches review companies’ presentations to investors a month or so before the symposium and offer suggestions for improvement. As a result of this coaching, the quality of the presentations over the past five years has improved dramatically, Roston says. “The symposium offers start-ups a good opportunity to network and present their message to an audience of investors that otherwise would not be easily accessible to them,” he says. “The MGCS also helps to shine the spotlight on Southeast Michigan and what we offer here.”

At the annual University of Michigan campus-wide Michigan Business Challenge, NEF coaches help semifinalists refine their business plans and sharpen their pitches. Coaching assistance also is provided to entrepreneurial teams at Ann Arbor Angels, the Ann Arbor SPARK Boot Camp and Detroit-based TechTown’s Labs Venture Accelerator. “The nice thing about being a coach is that you work with other people and learn about their skills,” Roston remarks. “Many of our coaches become resources whom we can recommend for contract work and company positions.”

Recently, New Enterprise Forum upgraded its website, developed a more-integrated marketing and communications strategy and beefed up the benefits to its 120 members, who represent a wide range of organizations, including the Zell Lurie Institute, MiQuest and the Detroit Development Fund. “As part of our membership-building efforts, we are targeting service providers, such as website developers, attorneys, consultants and insurers, who will benefit by offering their services to entrepreneurial companies,” Roston says. “We plan to promote these members and their services on NEF’s website.” Monthly meetings are now open free-of-charge to entrepreneurs and members, and the meeting location has shifted to Ann Arbor SPARK Central on East Liberty Street.

As Roston steps down from his NEF post, he says he plans to devote more time to his own management-consulting company, Pair of Docs Consulting. The legacy he wants to leave to NEF is longevity. “In another 28 years, I hope someone still will be able to talk to NEF’s president about what’s new on NEF’s 56th anniversary,” Roston remarks.

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