Capital Ideas: Bryan Ritchie

Utah native Bryan Ritchie epitomizes the kind of talent Michigan's Capital region wants to attract. He has a Ph.D. from Emory University, he’s entrepreneurial and he’s worldly. He speaks Thai and Laotian, spent more than four weeks this year teaching and traveling in Bangkok, Thailand and Laos and is set to travel to Brazil in November.

Ritchie joined Michigan State University (MSU) nine years ago as associate professor of International Relations. Since then, he has assumed additional responsibilities including associate director of External Strategy with the Office of Biobased Technologies and co-director of the Michigan Prosperity Center.

Two years ago, Ritchie started the Center for Innovation and Economic Prosperity at MSU with fellow professor, Ross Emmett. The Center for Innovation and Economic Prosperity runs an independently funded senior course through the James Madison College at MSU. Every semester, 12 students are chosen to study and work with some of the most entrepreneurial, successful companies in the state, country and region. They create their own projects based on research and practical application designed to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation in Michigan.

The students in the 2009 seminar focused on keeping graduates from leaving the state by connecting them with entrepreneurial firms, which resulted in the creation of Spotlight Michigan.

Capital Gains: What is the purpose of Spotlight Michigan?

Bryan Ritchie: There is a core set of companies in Mid-Michigan that are entrepreneurial. We defined entrepreneurial firms as those firms that are creative, adaptive and risk-taking. What we said is, let’s identify firms in Michigan that already have those traits and go out and interview them and put them on a website so people can become aware of those firms. At the same time, we had students at the university interested in entrepreneurship and we wanted to identify who they were and make firms aware of them.

The idea was to put a site together in which we could spotlight the students and the companies, a place where companies could go to look at student resumes and a place where students could find the companies. Hopefully, this will encourage to students to stay in Michigan and encourage companies to recruit from Michigan. The idea was, how could we link the two to reduce brain drain?

CG: What do you hope to achieve with Spotlight Michigan?

BR: I don’t have a goal. This is very entrepreneurial in the sense that we’re being very creative and adaptive as we go along. What I learned about entrepreneurial ventures is that they very rarely end up looking like what the founders indented them to be.

I’m not sure what the end game will be other than to give students an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned and get real experience with entrepreneurship that they can take with them wherever they go.

CG: Why is it important to do this at the university level?

BR: MSU has always been a land grant university and now it’s a world grant university. That means we need to take scholarly things we learn and give it practical application. We spend four years teaching students what we think is important from a theoretical standpoint and it seems to me we need to find a way for students to apply these things practically.

CG: Define entrepreneurship.

BR: For us, entrepreneurship is not just small business. We’re not just interested in companies that start up a new fast food place or dry cleaning shop. Frankly, small business is great and sort of has its own category, but what we’re interested in is firms that are taking new, innovative ideas or existing markets and applying ideas in ways that haven’t been applied before to capture value.

CG: How does this region create an entrepreneurial culture?

BR: In order to create an entrepreneurial culture, you have to be able to fail. If the price for failure is so high that you can’t recover from failure, no one will try. The truth is, an entrepreneur usually fails multiple times before they succeed. A famous example is Sam Walton (Wal-Mart founder).

Interestingly, in my case, I succeeded and then failed. I started a company when I was a sophomore in college and in the first year it grossed $500,000. It took off and was tremendously successful. The problem was, I thought I could do that anytime, anywhere. My second company was a software company. It needed the Internet and was before its time. I learned that being in the right place at the right time was a huge component of success. You have to have a certain baseline merit of an idea, but if you don’t have the market, it might not work. Or, if the market’s so great, it might cover the flaws.

The environment in which you work has to be able to allow you to take risk. If it doesn’t, only the big companies will try something new because they’re the only people who can afford to recover from failure. In Florida, for example, you can never lose your primary residence no matter how much you lose, you can never lose your house. Michigan doesn’t have that law and that’s a disincentive to take risk.

CG: Who is and who isn’t a part of the local movement trying to revitalize the area?

BR: There are a lot of people who are part of the economic development community who are pushing this. I would say many institutional forces — government and labor for example— are less focused on entrepreneurship and more focused on getting big companies here and creating jobs.

Jobs should not be the focus. Measuring entrepreneurship by how many jobs you create often makes you make decisions that are not entrepreneurial.

One example is when the State of Michigan invested $43 million in a transmission plant to keep 1,500 jobs here in Michigan. This is such a cross purpose with what we culturally want to create. One, because it keeps jobs here that don’t require education and are going to leave anyway ,and two, because that investment could have helped a company that could have employed 10 people, but spawned an industry that could employ thousands. As long as that underlying thought process and behavior is in place, entrepreneurial folks will look at other places in the country.

To be successful our labor institutions, such as the UAW, must change its focus to skills and productivity rather than wage bargaining.Our government must focus on startups rather than existing companies. Academia must create programs and curriculums around entrepreneurship to augment traditional programs of study.

These core institutions have to be entrepreneurial, or I don’t care what the economic development groups are doing. It won’t have much impact. My perspective is that Michigan lags in these areas. We’re having a difficult time catching a new vision.

CG: Do you see a difference between the students you work with in Asia and the ones you work with in Michigan?

BR: For the most part, students in Asia are really hungry. They know they need to make their own breaks and figure out their own way to make things happen. Their focus is much more of a no-nonsense approach.

We have very bright students and they do very interesting things. As the economy goes down, I’ve noticed a change to more like what’s happening in Asia.

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Ivy Hughes is the Managing Editor of Capital Gains. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Brian Ritchie talks with Capital Gains at the Grand River Cafe in East Lansing

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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