Anew nonprofit organization looks to build a network of startup company founders across Michigan that entrepreneurs can turn to for support and advice while also growing their philanthropy work.
The Ann Arbor-based Michigan Founders Fund spun out of an Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation initiative that formed in 2019, the Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund, and in December received federal designation as a 501(c)(3) organization. The organization looks to bring together tech company founders throughout Michigan who can support each other as they build their businesses.
“Our mission is pretty simple: We exist to grow the presence of diverse-led and successful high-growth ventures and advance civic leadership in Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Trista Van Tine, executive director and co-founder of Michigan Founders Fund.
The organization starts with more than 40 members consisting of startup founders and venture capitalists, and looks to grow beyond its Ann Arbor base.
In reaching across the state, Michigan Founders Fund aims to create a strong and active founder-to-founder network and drive a “founders-for-founders culture” where entrepreneurs “form meaningful relationships and invest in one another’s success,” Van Tine said.
That work is best done on a statewide basis, which creates a hub of tech entrepreneurs who can collaborate, Van Tine said. Michigan Founders Fund organizers believe the state as a whole has “all of the ingredients to be a major tech ecosystem,” she said.
“We need to uplift Michigan tech as a whole, as a collective,” said Van Tine, who has worked for tech startups and in venture capital and returned to Michigan in 2020 after being away for 14 years.
“We’re kind of doing ourselves a disservice within Michigan to try to create too strong of an identity between different cities and metro areas, when the reality is outside people don’t really recognize those nuances like we do inside the state,” she said. “For us to really help move Michigan forward, let’s talk about Michigan being a place for tech to thrive and grow.”
That networking with peers can prove invaluable to startup founders, said Erika Block, a tech entrepreneur who’s now principal at StickyLab LLC, an Ann Arbor-based business coaching and consulting firm for startups.
While several entrepreneurial support organizations operate around the state, the Michigan Founders Fund can connect startup founders with peers who have similar experiences.
“There’s something really different when you get to talk to people who are in the thick of it right now,” Block said.
Another goal for Michigan Founders Fund is to venture into philanthropy and provide financial support to causes backed by members who pledge 1 percent of the company’s equity or profit to a fund that, in time, would provide charitable grants.
The fund could eventually back causes including equity and inclusion, quality of life and human services, STEM education, and entrepreneurship.
The philanthropic aspects of Michigan Founders Fund can give members “an opportunity to become a community leader in parallel to also being a business leader,” Van Tine said. The model has been deployed successfully in other tech hubs in the U.S., she added.
“Our belief is that they have a social responsibility to uplift those around them and ensure the growth and success of the community that they’re a part of and which has given to them, and to give back to where you live,” she said. “You can’t have one without the other. For a business, the community is your source of talent, it’s your source of customers, and your source of life and lifestyle for the employees of your company. If the community’s not growing and thriving and becoming a place people want to be, then ultimately that has an effect on your business as well.”
In creating Michigan Founders Fund as a statewide organization, organizers believe that Michigan is “at an inflection point for high-growth entrepreneurship and its long-term impact in our state,” Van Tine said.
Meanwhile, business incubators, accelerators and organizations that support entrepreneurs are far more prevalent now than they were two decades ago. As well, access to angel and venture capital has grown significantly over the years, and many universities and colleges today have tech transfer offices and entrepreneurial support arms.
Now is the time to build a statewide organization such as Michigan Founders Fund because of the shift in the entrepreneurial landscape over the years, Van Tine said.
“Michigan in particular needed all of these years to mature, to see many more ecosystem builders as well as founders emerging throughout the state,” she said. “Now that we have this mature market and all of these different entrepreneurs focusing on many different verticals of industry — life sciences, manufacturing and A.I., mobility, fintech, cybersecurity — how do we harness all of that activity and energy and create density and create connections between them and make sure they are leaning into that peer fellowship and finding support with one another? Because who understands a founder’s journey better than a fellow founder?”
Making connections with other tech entrepreneurs is one of the aspects of Michigan Founders Fund that attracted Darren Riley to the organization. Riley in January 2021 co-founded Grand Rapids-based startup JustAir Solutions Inc., which maps cities with a series of air quality sensors to provide an accurate view of the air quality in neighborhoods, generating data needed to address pollution. The company has an ongoing pilot program in Grand Rapids.
Riley splits his time between Detroit and Grand Rapids, where he is an entrepreneur-in-residence at Start Garden LLC. He’s also among the founders of Commune Angels, a Detroit early-stage investing group with 32 members across the state.
Riley says Michigan Founders Fund cultivates a “very unique approach on offering support” by building a statewide peer network for startups founders. The network can offer entrepreneurs a place to turn when figuring out their next steps, navigating through difficulty, affirming their thinking, calming their anxiety about a pending decision, or building confidence.
“Having that group that’s also going through it — it’s just shared space and shared experience as if you’re going on a journey. Having somebody who has your back is probably the most beneficial thing, and having people who’ve been there and done that who can help motivate me and inspire me,” Riley said.
“For us to win as a region, we need the resources of Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids,” he added. “We’re not that far apart from each other. We need to be in cohesion.”
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