Entrepreneurship program and professor’s mentorship provide students the confidence to find success with new ventures.
By Erin O’Donnell
The summer before his sophomore year at Marquette, Charles Michael, Comm ’14, took a trip to visit friends who lived and worked in San Francisco. The experience gave him sudden clarity about his career. “It opened my eyes to the opportunity in tech and the startup world,” he recalls. “I oriented everything toward getting a full-time job at a startup after school.”
Working toward a minor in entrepreneurship, he began pursuing internships at startups, even cold-calling companies that had taken part in the famous Y Combinator technology startup accelerator. Ultimately he landed a full-time paid internship with a San Francisco Y Combinator company called AnyPerk (recently renamed Fond), where he sold employee benefits packages to Fortune 500 companies. The company eventually took him on as a full-time employee, starting him on a path that led him and a friend to launch their own venture-backed technology startup, InsurGrid, in 2020.
John Peterson, the Coleman Chair in Entrepreneurship and instructor of practice, is committed to helping Marquette students like Michael develop their potential as entrepreneurs.
An engineer by training, Peterson, Grad ’92, spent three decades working on a range of ventures in manufacturing, real estate and consulting. He’s seen support for entrepreneurship grow dramatically. “There are just so many ways for young entrepreneurs to harness resources and be successful,” Peterson says. These include innovation spaces like Marquette’s own 707 Hub, startup accelerators such as gener8tor, and even networking platforms such as LinkedIn. “The world embraces young entrepreneurs more than ever before,” Peterson says.
At Marquette, Michael learned essential skills that he continues to use regularly, including techniques for evaluating a company’s business model. His company offers technology to make it easy and safe for people to provide their insurance information to receive a new quote. InsurGrid now has more than 1,500 insurance agents on its platform, and the company is preparing to scale up from 13 employees to more than 50.
Yet Peterson, who has mentored students and taught entrepreneurship courses at Marquette for more than 12 years, wants students to understand that entrepreneurial skills can be applied to situations beyond tech startups. “There are opportunities in self-employment and acquiring businesses, in family businesses and franchises, and in corporate innovation,” he says.
Samantha Metell, Bus Ad ’14, who earned majors in marketing and entrepreneurship, is one example. After graduation, she went to New York City, where she worked in graphic design in the marketing department for shoe company Sam Edelman. She was planning to go out on her own when she was hired by jewelry maker Julie Vos. In that job she began taking classes to develop her photography skills and became the company’s in-house photographer. In 2018, Metell launched her own freelance business. She’s now on retainer for multiple clients, photographing jewelry for e-commerce and other marketing purposes.
One of the lessons she took from her entrepreneurship courses is the importance of the pivot. “If you hit a roadblock, what else can you do?” she says. That lesson came in handy at the start of the pandemic, when she not only had an infant son, but also multiple jewelry clients who paused their marketing plans. Metell launched a pandemic business called Grant Point Designs, selling hand-painted needlepoint canvases, of which she intended to sell just a few. But her designs quickly sold out. Metell has hired an employee to help her keep up with demand. She now sells to wholesale shops, and though running two companies is hectic, she’s glad to be in business for herself.
Peterson wants to encourage more people to take this path. “Entrepreneurship is something everyone should consider,” he says. “You don’t have to be a middle-aged white man to be a successful entrepreneur.”
Michael says the entrepreneurship program built his confidence. He liked hearing from the entrepreneurs who spoke to his class, including Benjamin Bartling, Bus Ad ’11, founder of ZoomShift, who left Michael feeling that launching a tech startup might be within reach. Marquette’s annual ImpactNext Business Model Competition, now called the Brewed Ideas Challenge, was also a key experience. “It taught me that I can put something together and create something from scratch,” Michael says. “Marquette provided these opportunities to wrap my head around all of it.”