At the 80 Million Strong for Young American Jobs Summit I had the privilege of meeting Kelly Steffen, entrepreneur and student at Michigan State.  Through the organization she helped create–Spotlight Michigan–she is tackling the state’s brain drain (when college grads leave the state) while encouraging more young people to be entrepreneurs.  Please read and share!

Tell us about yourself!

spotlight MI picI am a rising senior at Michigan State University and majoring in International Relations and Economics. I’m interning in Dc this summer at the US forest Service- International Programs. However, the more you could focus on the company than on me would be great. I work hard for the organization but it takes the brain power and hard work of a few other individuals as well.

Tell us about your organization.

The company is called Spotlight Michigan and was started in a class at Michigan State called “Michigan Futures Seminar” run by two professors and through the Michigan Center for Innovation and Economic Prosperity (MCIEP). The class was given the question, “How do you develop an entrepreneurial culture in Michigan” From there we set forth with various studies, including a comparative  study to various cities we traveled to across the United States. Spotlight Michigan was thus born on a long road trip from Charleston to Raleigh.

The company is now run by 4 (myself included) Michigan State students that continue to profile various innovative students and businesses in Michigan. We hope to highlight these people and organization that “have it right” and to show that good things are still happening in Michigan and the state still has a potential to be great and thrive economically. We also work to host events to connect the vast entreprenuerial resources in the state to young adults. Something the company has really noticed is that Michigan does have a lot of great resources for entreprenuers, however, first, young adults have little access or knowledge to these and secondly, a lot of the resources in the state overlap on services and could be much more efficient if they all worked together. Instead they almost compete and thus don’t provide the best overall service to the state.

In the next few months we hope to develop more of a service type branch where we act as a consulting service for young students who want to open their own commpany. We also hope to create an “entreprenuerial match-making service’ where we can connect young adults with developed businesses either for jobs or as a mentor service. We also hope to act as a student liason on some of the board of directors for a lot of the economic developers in the area to make sure they keep student’s interest in mind.

Overall Spotlight Michigan believes that entrepreneurship, especially young adult entrepreneurship is the only way to turn the dismal state of the economy around. We’ve seen the failure of the big auto industry and know that Michigan must diversify its economy to small businesses and cannot rely on any one big industry anymore. Also, Michigan has a GREAT university system and thus high knowledge students are its best asset. So striving for a growing entrepreneurial young adult population seems the obvious best step.

What was the inspiration behind starting it?

The inspiration for the company came from 12 students sitting around and looking at the statistics like 54% of Michigan university graduates leave the state and its 15.4% unemployment and the fact that a family leaves Michigan every 8 minutes. The group of us realized that we cannot just let this go on anymore and need to step up and take action and put all of our research and knowledge into legitimate action. We just couldn’t watch these things get worse and worse and realized we HAD to do something.

What were the challenges in starting your own social change organization and how did you deal with them?  What have been your biggest successes?

The biggest challenge originally was learning how to work with the 12 students that founded it. We all had competing ideas and everyone was a leader in their own right. We figured this out by really making an effort to sit out and listen to everyone’s ideas. Certainly fights arose but I like to think that overall we worked pretty well collaboratively. However, now the real challenge is how to tackle such a vast problem in the state in a cohesive manner. Like I said earlier there are A LOT of entreprenuerial resources in the state and Spotlight Michigan is really trying to get everyone to talk together. It’s hard to organize that. Hopefully,

We have had a lot of successes however. I am constantly blown away by the opportunities we get. We were asked to speak at the Michigan legislature to the higher education appropriations committee to show the real benefits of increasing funding for higher education at a time when the budget is completely shot. We also presented at the National Summit for Research this year. I wasn’t there, but my colleagues were and it was a huge honor for us to be asked to present.

What resources have been helpful in creating and maintaining this organization?

We’ve gotten A LOT of community support. People have never hesitate to meet with us, to tell us about new opportunities, etc. The president of Michigan State, Louanna Simon, has been really supportive and opened a lot of opportunities for us. Our two original professors have also been great mentors.

Why did you attend the 80 Million Strong Summit?  What did you learn?

I attended the 80 million strong conference because the overall message of it is great. In these scary economic times, young adults are overlooked SO MUCH. All this legislation is geared towards big companies, experienced workers, etc. None of it is directed at the future of this nation! It can be so frustrating sometimes when you hear this great group like at 80 million strong just shouting for a chance to be heard and seen so they can make a difference and the majority of this nation’s leaders continues to overlook them still. Young adults are dying to make a difference in this world but their efforts are so frequently frustrated. It’s ridiculous. I learned that we have to continue pushing to be heard but learned that there are people, like yourself, as passionate about me at changing this.

What are some solutions to the youth unemployment crisis and how does your organization if at all, address this issue?

I addressed this a lot in number 2 but entreprenuership, like we’re promoting, opens new opportunities and jobs for not only themselves, but their peers. It also adds unique value to society and a new way to get things done. To me, it’s key to changing the scary statistics.

How do you balance going to school while running an organization?

I haven’t quite had to face this problem yet. Because it started as a class for credit last semester and then developed more over the summer, I haven’t yet faced the difficulties of balancing running a company and keeping up with school work. However, I am worried about it next year, mainly because I’m so passionate about this it is much easier to work on Spotlight Michigan things than it is to study for calculus. It’ll definately be a balancing act… I’ll let you know if it turns out okay.

What advice would you give to a young person wanting to start an organization?

GO FOR IT!!!!! If you have a good idea, talk it out with a few friends and don’t be afraid to ADAPT your idea. After that, just start googling resources that you think might help you. Trust me, they are probably out there. While young is the time to start an organization and take a chance! You have way much less to lose now than when you’re 35 and have a mortgage and a family.

How can people get involved?  How can people contact you?

If anyone wants to get involved with Spotlight Michigan or to work for similar goals in the state, please please please contact me at steffenk@spotlightmichigan.com so we can discuss how to work together. Also, check out t www.spotlightmichigan.com and submit your own ideas and comments on the articles. Also, if anyone has their own idea and wish to write an op-ed, let me know! We’re really trying to get more guest authors!