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Thursday, 27 September 2012 13:45

Program helps veteran execs embrace startup culture

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MICHIGAN — Startup companies have a much different pace and culture than what’s typically found in corporate America.

That’s why midcareer professionals from larger firms often find it difficult to transition to smaller companies in emerging and growth industries. Now those professionals — and the startup businesses that can benefit from their experience — can turn to a state program to help ease that transition.

Sponsored by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Michigan Shifting Gears helps white-collar professionals find new careers while simultaneously injecting a dose of expertise into young companies.

The 12-week program focuses on getting seasoned corporate executives to leverage their business knowledge into a number of the state’s growth sectors.

The program includes a three-day small business simulation, 11 days of workshops, guest speakers, one-on-one mentoring and an 80-hour pro bono internship. The total cost for the program is $500.

One West Michigan company taking advantage of the program and its participants is Kalamazoo-based biotech firm West Labs Scientific LLC, which works out of Southwest Michigan Innovation Center.

“The attraction portion of the business can be difficult at times for a company like mine,” said Richard West, president of West Labs and formerly of Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids. “Being a small company and being in the scientific field, I don’t claim to know everything, so we tap into resources where we can find them.”

West said while he hasn’t hired anyone yet, he still keeps in contact with the two interns the company used and hopes to hire a sales and marketing person within the next year.

“Because many of them come from different backgrounds in other fields, they are able to approach working with industries like mine differently,” West said. “This program is taking people with 15 and 25 years experience and retooling them to the breakneck pace of a startup company.”

Created in 2007 by Diana Wong, associate professor of strategy, entrepreneurship and organization development at Eastern Michigan University, the Michigan Shifting Gears program sat dormant for nearly two years.

The program initially didn’t receive any grant funding because people didn’t think it made sense to help white-collar professionals find careers, instead focusing on programs aimed to help retool blue-collar workers for new industries, for example, Wong said.

She continued to push the program’s potential for helping startups and eventually convinced Amy Cell, VP of talent enhancement for the MEDC, to run a trial program in 2009.

“My vision is not just for people to land positions in the new economy, but to help grow those businesses they land in,” Wong said.

The Shifting Gears program also has partnerships with Ann Arbor Spark, Menlo Innovation, Grand Valley State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, The Prima Civitas Foundation and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, among others.

Wong said having seasoned veterans onboard at startups and small businesses can also benefit the companies when they’re trying to attract investors. Often those investors want to know what kind of talent profile is behind a company.

“A company’s idea may be great,” Wong said. “But sometimes investors may not trust the leadership team and worry about (the company’s) ability to execute.”

In the program, participants are coached on how to take initiative in solving problems. Wong said working in a large company is like working on aircraft carrier where each person has his own role, but when it comes to small business, people have to learn how to work with a blank piece of paper and develop a plan on their own.

The program recently launched its 12th cohort, but Wong said the program’s funding isn’t guaranteed. The longevity of this program always depends on budget cycles and where it lands in the MEDC’s priorities, she said.

“The budget is not stable for the program,” she said. “Most people don’t feel that supporting professionals is that important.”

However, Wong views the program as a strategic initiative that points talent into growing and emerging sectors of the new Michigan economy, one largely based in life sciences, biotechnologies and clean fuels, to name a few.

To make sure the funding keeps rolling in, Wong said the program is continually checking in with graduates. The program contacts participants at intervals of three, six and nine months. The program currently has an 89-percent placement rate at the nine-month mark.

“These are not just any jobs, either,” Wong said. “These are high-quality, well-paying jobs that participants have networked into.”

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