Ross Graduates Highlight the Advantages of Corporate Entrepreneurship

Large corporations, once considered stodgy backwaters of organizational inertia and inbred thinking, have pivoted dramatically in recent years. Now many companies are hiring bright, talented individuals who can bring entrepreneurial thinking to the corporate boardroom and guide venture-capital investments in high-potential start-ups. At Entrepalooza 2014, three Ross School graduates spoke about their decisions to pursue careers in corporate entrepreneurship and VC investment. They also discussed the pros and cons, and offered advice to students considering similar pathways.

Greater resources and support:

Heath Silverman, MBA ’08, relishes the opportunity to pursue entrepreneurial ventures within large companies where resources and support are more plentiful and failure is not the end of the line. “At my own start-up companies, I was putting in 100 hours a week and had no chance to do anything outside the office,” said Silverman, who previously worked at two software ventures, one of which he co-founded and sold. “I knew if I failed, it could be all over.” Silverman spent three years at Intel, where he was a strategic planner in the Education Market Platforms Group, and also worked at Amazon.com as a product manager in the Web Services group. Currently, he is the head of international business at Edmodo, a social learning platform. “The environment at Edmodo is similar to that of a start-up ─ complete total ambiguity,” Silverman remarked. “I work with a small team. It’s very complex. I handle lots of responsibilities, including business development, marketing, product development and fundraising, so I have to focus on prioritizing and measuring results.”

Instant credibility and a secure paycheck:

Instant credibility and a secure paycheck are two of the benefits that Philip O’Niel, MBA ’10, has found at DTE Energy Resources. “We make investments in existing businesses and also do start-ups,” explained O’Niel, who is a manager in the New Business Development and Commercial Strategy group. He said developing new ventures at DTE is similar in many ways to launching his own technology start-up, Ambiq Micro, while he was in graduate school at Ross. “DTE has more resources,” O’Niel observed. “If I need top-level advice, it’s a phone call away. I have internal dollars to work with, so I don’t spend time on fundraising. Getting things approved is not easy in a utility holding company, however.” Other benefits of corporate entrepreneurship: instant credibility and a steady paycheck. On the investment side, O’Niel evaluates and invests in businesses with large, capital-intensive assets and near-term earnings potential. “Energy is becoming increasingly technology-driven, so investing is a great way to keep up with new technologies and get insights into the future,” he said. “As a public company, we need to see a clear direction to earnings within three years. We don’t spend a lot of time evaluating the company’s team, because we’ll replace it with our own people.”

Jump-starting new businesses:

As a self-described “jack of all trades” with a lifelong penchant for creating ideas for new businesses, Marie Wolf, BBA ’05, has found her near-perfect job niche as global director of research innovation at Unilever. She works primarily with technology start-ups, leading-edge suppliers and academia to help build the future of consumer research. “We are actively scouting, partnering and investing in companies,” Wolfe said. “In my role, I screen 30 companies every two weeks and look at their future potential. The ‘what’ is just a check box. It’s the ‘how’ that’s important ─ do they have entrepreneurial spirit, and can they be creative and flexible and work within a corporate environment?”

Preparing for corporate entrepreneurship careers:

O’Niel identified three key components that prepared him for his corporate entrepreneurship position at DTE Energy Resources:

  • Ross MBA analytical tools for evaluating companies and investments
  • Presentation skills developed through the Zell Lurie Institute
  • Industry knowledge gained from on-the-job experience

Silverman pinpointed key programs and work assignments that helped him hone his entrepreneurial skills:

  • A MAP (Multidisciplinary Action Project) with Intel Corp. and an entrepreneurial MAP at an Irish business incubator while at Ross
  • Networking with students and alumni through Zell Lurie and Ross
  • A full-time position at Intel after graduation where he learned to “walk the talk”

Achieving success in a corporate setting:

People often underestimate the value of working entrepreneurially inside a corporation, according to Wolfe. “Corporations offer the best training grounds with world-class marketing and organizational structures,” she said. “I look at my work as managing the Company of Marie and think about how an entrepreneur would do my job, grow my business, build my reputation and delight people.”

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