New student internship program means business in Mid Michigan

Ralph Kettling knows firsthand that a small dose of entrepreneurial spirit can accomplish big things.

As the co-founder of SmallSpacesAppliances.com -- a Mid Michigan Internet company that provides compact appliances for small living spaces like boats and RVs -- Kettling is more than willing to foster that same zeal in others through a newly created Entrepreneurship Internship Program (EIP).

The program is a collaboration between Saginaw Valley State University, Central Michigan University, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan-Flint, and the MidMichigan Innovation Center. A grant awarded in 2008 from the Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship helps finance the program, which matches student interns with startup companies.

The idea behind the Entrepreneurship Internship Program is to expose interns to a different kind of business training than what is available during traditional internships at larger companies. In return, students receive the kind of schooling they simply can't get in a classroom -- firsthand experience in how to start and run a small business. It's also the kind of training that organizers hope will make a difference in retaining Michigan's most talented students once they graduate from college and begin making career choices.

By many assessments, the program is working. It's "providing a huge benefit to the participating companies, students and for Michigan," says Chris Moultrup, program director at MidMichigan Innovation Center (MMIC), a Midland-based business incubator with 21 startup companies, and 12 virtual tenants. So far, the program has placed 31 interns in companies throughout the Mid Michigan region since it started last year.

Joe Chrysler, a Saginaw Valley State University computer science major, began working for SmallSpacesAppliances.com in October 2009. Since then, the EIP intern says he's had his fingers in nearly every part of the Essexville-based business, including search engine optimization and product entry to website redesign and evaluating customer experience patterns.
 
Chrysler's determination to develop his own small computer business has been reignited by his internship at SmallSpacesAppliances.com, he says.

"I think it's absolutely critical to be an entrepreneur today because the traditionally 'safe' occupations at large corporations are proving to be not as reliable as they seem," says the Millington native. "I'll leave the program with a better understanding of the entrepreneurial process, what developing a new business takes, and how much the Internet has lowered the barrier to entry into the entrepreneurial world."

It's a good bargain for business owners like Kettling, too. In addition to receiving financial support to cover a portion of intern wages, participating companies benefit from an infusion of young talent.

"Talent, labor and creativity are valuable resources for a new company in the Internet world," says Kettling, who enjoys the opportunity to introduce young people to the world of entrepreneurship and the possibilities that the Internet holds for small businesses.

"The Internet also enables people to create new businesses on business models that did not exist a few years ago," he says. "This creates a great opportunity for those young people who want to develop their own businesses."

Project lead Loraine J. Hudson, MSU director of Research Facilitation and Dissemination, says the Entrepreneurship Internship Program gives students valuable experiences in start-up companies, and it provides start-up companies with low-cost assistance.

"Our goal is to facilitate these matches and retain both the companies and the trained students here in Michigan," Hudson says.

For Lee Hughes, an internship at the MidMichigan Innovation Center has given him the opportunity to work closely with several start-ups housed at the Midland-based business incubator. The Ottawa Lake native will graduate from Saginaw Valley State University with a marketing degree.

But in the meantime, Hughes is helping the MidMichigan Innovation Center and its startup companies with marketing and other assistance. The experience, he says, has fueled his interest in launching his own dream business someday -- a seasonal outdoors outfitter store in northern Michigan.

The Entrepreneurship Internship Program is much different from 'traditional' internships, Hughes says.

"I have been given jobs that require a large amount of trust and expectation and am expected to fulfill those jobs," he says. "I am receiving real-world experience and exposure."


Photos:

Joe Chrysler, who attends Saginaw Vally State University, is participating in the Entrepreneurship Internship Program.

Joe Chrysler helps Ralph and Deb Kettling with their business and website, SmallSpacesAppliances.com.

Ralph and Deb Kettling were in the process of remodeling the galley on their boat when they came up with the idea for SmallSpacesAppliances.com.

A two burner cooktop is one of many small appliances that can be found on the Kettling's website.



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