The New Entrepreneurs

When graduate student Ashley Stanley (flute and chamber arts) arrived at Michigan in the fall of 2014, she recognized immediately that she was receiving a world-class education. “My playing ability was improving exponentially and I was getting the chance to work with serious colleagues with unbelievable talent,” she recalled recently.

But Stanley also felt that her passions didn’t mesh with the traditional trajectory of a classically trained musician. “I was sick to my stomach that I would never get an orchestra job that I didn’t even want,” she said. “I always really liked popular music, and wanted to learn electric guitar and work with dancers, and poets, and actors. I wanted to play my friends’ music, I wanted to make my own music. I wanted to embrace my own generation and take the world by storm!”

Fortunately, as she began her second year, Stanley learned about a new SMTD program called EXCEL: Excellence in Entrepreneurship, Career Empowerment & Leadership, and she eagerly took advantage of the mentoring, courses, and lectures that it offers. EXCEL quickly opened up a brave new world of possibilities in the way Stanley thought about her future. She soon developed a concrete project, Hustle Harder, and received an EXCEL incubator fellowship to commission seven composers to write music inspired by the state of Michigan. Working with musicians, poets, welders, dancers, and engineers, she is planning a fall concert to premiere the works, followed by a tour with an educational component and site-specific videos for each work.

“I wrote my first grant proposal, received my first grant, and was finally understanding the business side of music and how I can make my ideas happen,” said Stanley. “My ‘outside the box’ ideas were being valued! EXCEL has completely changed the culture of the school.”

Talk to any student participating in the EXCEL program, and similar enthusiasm bubbles forth. The program, which just completed its first year, is revolutionizing the way performing arts students prepare for their careers.

EXCEL’s stated goal is “to enable students to forge a viable career in the performing arts by exploring, developing, and leveraging their talents, training, skills, and ambitions.”  But the program also has a higher goal: to empower students with the ability to change the world through their art as they find ways to make what they’re passionate about-the performing arts, in whatever iteration-valuable to others.

The program is the result of Aaron Dworkin’s overriding goal for his tenure as dean: to make SMTD the most relevant school of performing arts in the world. Reasoning that the success of the performing arts is directly dependent upon the relevance of music, theatre, and dance to the communities they serve, Dworkin has implemented a number of programs to support his agenda, with EXCEL as the cornerstone.

“We see EXCEL as being a major steward of relevancy,” said Jonathan Kuuskoski, the assistant director of the program under Professor Mark Clague (musicology), who serves as director of entrepreneurship and career services. “The goal is to help students find a voice within their field of study and help make that field of study resonate with communities. In order for that to happen, you have to connect with a community; you can’t do it in a vacuum. And it has to leverage the excellence that you bring to your artistry.”

In creating the EXCEL program, Dworkin hopes to do for current students what his mentors did for him when he founded the Sphinx Organization as an SMTD student 20 years ago. “Aaron Dworkin is such a role model because he was driven to solve this problem [of underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos in classical music] that was directly connected to his aesthetic goals and his skills as an artist,” said Kuuskoski. “Every student needs that.”

Carlos Funn, an MFA dance major, agrees. He created a project with the working title of Kintsugi: The Art of Healing, which revolves around the stigma, in the African American community, of seeking mental health services. “What Jonathan and Mark are developing with EXCEL is truly what artists need in the changing landscape in which we live,” he said. “They helped me to not feel guilty or intimidated about seeing art as both a creative outlet and one where you can be sustainable in your profession.”


A Portfolio Career Foundation

Encouraging entrepreneurism in the arts has become a national imperative in higher education. “Although the traditional path can work,” said Clague, “the student success rate increases for those who manufacture their own opportunities. With educational costs ever increasing, it’s a moral imperative to nurture student careers.”

In recent years, SMTD and many other performing arts schools have emphasized the need to develop “portfolio careers,” in which performing artists excel at their chosen discipline but also develop multiple strategies to reap income from it, such as teaching, composing, writing, manufacturing, distributing, and administering. Clague points out that there is historical precedent in this model: renowned composers, from Bach to Beethoven to Mahler, engaged in a spectrum of music jobs, from teaching to directing choirs to running opera companies.

But today’s artists are also encouraged to develop skills that allow them to be their own promoters, agents, and publicists-and perhaps even sound engineers and videographers. Leveraging technology is a key part of this effort.

“These days, if you can’t put up a YouTube video, or develop a blog, or leverage social media to create readership for your message, then you’re really not participating in civic discourse,” said Clague, “and so much about the arts, now, is about being socially relevant.”

The ultimate goal with portfolio careers is to create a “robust plan A” (a phrase coined by Laura Hoffman, assistant dean for admissions and enrollment), in which there’s no need to forge a back-up “plan B.”

“Hopefully there is that one orchestra job, or acting career in Hollywood, or dance company membership, that will provide the lion’s share of your income,” said Clague. “But even the people we look at as our role models are doing many different things: clothing lines, record companies-the superstars are entrepreneurs.”

While SMTD has encouraged students to develop portfolio careers for several years, the EXCEL program takes entrepreneurism to a new level by actually supporting student projects through funding and personalized guidance.

“I cannot fully express how important it is to have this program at SMTD,” said junior acting major Zoey Bond. “It is constantly discussed in our classes that we should create our own work, or pursue our passions outside of acting, and EXCEL is allowing us to do so.” Bond, with sophomore acting major Jesse Aaronson, launched a project titled Detroit Youth in Action: Theatre for Social Change, which aims to help students in the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) develop  documentary-style theatre pieces, providing the opportunity to explore social issues and concerns in an artistic medium.

“EXCEL has been integral to our forward trajectory with the project,” said Bond. “It has connected us with several key contacts, necessary to establish a relationship with a school-a crucial step for our project. Additionally, the EXCEL team has really gone above and beyond in assuring that our project sees not only completion, but success.”


If You Offer It, They Will Come

Launched in September 2015, the EXCEL program has been received with overwhelming enthusiasm by SMTD students, demonstrating that they were hungry for the guidance and support they’re now receiving. Clague and Kuuskoski set some preliminary benchmarks for the program’s first semester, such as holding at least 30 one-on-one career services appointments with students by mid-December. In the end, they conducted 120.

“It wasn’t just the meetings,” said Kuuskoski. “Our first few classes were overfilled; we had waiting lists immediately.”

A strategic decision was made to create a program that synthesized career skills (centered around self-promotion) and entrepreneurship training (how to launch a business or project), so the program features a menu of offerings that include courses taught by professionals in the field, master classes with successful arts entrepreneurs, workshops, and mentoring.


EXCEL Report Card: Year 1

●      200+ students enrolled in 10 credit-bearing arts business and entrepreneurship courses ranging from “Legal Issues in the Arts” to a hands-on “Record Industry Workshop”

●      400+ students engaged via 20 skills workshops (e.g. resume and cover letter writing)

●      Nearly 200 individual career advising appointments with mentors

●      EXCELerator Fellowship program awarded $35,000 in direct student support for 12 entrepreneurial projects

●      EXCELcast speaker series, broadcast online, featured conversations with top artist-entrepreneurs and industry leaders such as Daniel Bernard Roumain, PRISM Quartet, JACK Quartet, actor Delroy Lindo, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, James Kendrick (ASCAP/Schott), and Jay LeBoeuf (Real Industry)

●      EXCEL Career Expo connected 100+ students with local industry leaders to present their projects and develop contacts

●      Guest Entrepreneur Daniel Bernard Roumain (MM ’95, DMA ’00) visited campus multiple times to lead discussion-based, interactive sessions

●      Launched an internship collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera, placing an SMTD student intern in the production department, and facilitated the placement of 12 SMTD students into internships with other organizations

Making EXCEL accessible and useful to all students was a priority, and this is supported by the broad definition of “entrepreneurship” that Clague and Kuuskoski apply, which is simply “students doing things,” and the imperative to create an atmosphere that is collaborative rather than competitive.

Kuuskoski cites the best entrepreneurial performing arts programs nationally-at Eastman School of Music, Arizona State University, New England Conservatory, and Manhattan School of Music-and says that the SMTD model is already on a par with them. “In six months, we established a fully operational, comprehensive program,” he said.

But the SMTD program aims to set itself apart from the current frontrunners, and ultimately exceed them. There is an inevitability to this goal thanks to the breadth of top academic programs at U-M, providing interdisciplinary explorations with business, engineering, education, social work, kinesiology, and more.

“The U-M ecosystem is amazing,” said Kuuskoski. “Our students are engaged with many other programs that are national leaders in their respective fields. That lends incredible potential.”

Also significant is the University’s overall commitment to student entrepreneurship. There are now 16 centers of entrepreneurship on campus, as well as the Innovate Blue program which ties them all together, providing a campus entrepreneurship network that is unrivaled.

“We are positioned in this really unique situation where we have the full support of a university interested in entrepreneurship,” said Kuuskoski. “That has already paid dividends for us in terms of resources and funding.”

The latter further distinguishes EXCEL; initial support came from the University’s Third Century Initiative Quick Win/Discovery grant program, which provided $42,250 to get the program off the ground. Ultimately, though, Dworkin’s goal is to provide $100,000 toward the program annually, much of it in direct support of student enterprises.

To date, about $35,000 has already been awarded to student projects, which immediately puts SMTD on the same playing field with the country’s top programs. However, active fundraising is now taking place, with the goal of endowing the program to ensure perpetual support at the $100,000 level. This would provide the largest student project fund for any performing arts entrepreneurship program in the country.


Project Support: Mentorship & Funding

The flagship of EXCEL is the EXCELerator Fellowship program, which supports student performing arts projects. All U-M students can apply for the program, working as individuals or in teams, and interdisciplinary projects are encouraged. If selected, they receive up to $2,500 in seed money along with extensive coaching and mentoring by Kuuskoski and Clague along with other faculty and arts professionals. “The cash is the thing that gets them through the door, but the mentoring is probably more valuable,” said Clague.

Martha Guth, a doctoral student who co-founded a project named Sparks & Wiry Cries-a tripartite initiative centered around art song-can testify to this fact. “The seed money has been extremely helpful; it will allow us to purchase recording equipment, enabling us to put our concerts on the web and record new podcasts for our archive of interviews with composers and artists,” she said. “However, what has been the most valuable has been the mentorship we have received. Both Mark and Jonathan were phenomenal mentors, and they, in turn, have connected us to other experts who have allowed us to take our incubating organization to the next level.”

In this first year, 12 teams were chosen for the program. Their endeavors ranged from Bond and Aaronson’s DPS theatre project to a new app, Soloist Now, that listens to a musician’s playing and adjusts the tempo, dynamics, and phrasing of the recorded orchestral accompaniment.

Rather than pitting the teams against one another to compete for funds-which is the traditional educational model in entrepreneurship-EXCEL funds all of the chosen teams.

“We’re creating a community of entrepreneurs, where they have multiple opportunities to connect with each other,” said Clague. “In business, the current trend is to focus on ‘the team’. It’s fundamentally different from how I was trained as a musician, which was all about competition. What we’re trying to emphasize to our students is that their SMTD colleagues-composers, conductors, actors, dancers-are their greatest asset, along with our incomparable alumni network.”

Kuuskoski notes that the impressive quality of the fellowship applications was a reflection of the high level of entrepreneurial activity already in existence at the school. One project, in fact, was started by a freshman, euphonium major Joe Broom, when he was a high school student. Titled Chamber Unique (ChU), the organization provides an innovative approach to performance. incorporating a variety of guest artists in multiple arts disciplines who come together as a “chamber unique” to harness the power of performing arts for education and service. In his first year at Michigan, Broom partnered with Crescendo Detroit, a program that provides in-school music programming in Detroit Public Schools.

“The EXCELerator Fellowship is filled with students who had great ideas that moved from their imagination to reality because of the program’s support,” said Broom. “We are all so grateful, and we don’t take this opportunity for granted.”

For Broom, one of the most important aspects of the EXCEL program has been the seminars with professionals. “I’ve listened to artist entrepreneurs give advice on how to remain resilient as a project changes from vision to execution, and how to manage time while going through that process,” he said. “I’ve had my organizational vision-which focuses on a collaborative approach to art and service-reinforced during these seminars. The combination of the fellowship, the seminars, and the ‘Business of Music’ course has provided incredible support.”

The capstone to the EXCELerator program is the EXCEL Career Expo. Unlike most career fairs, where organizations set up booths, give out information, and collect resumes, the EXCEL Expo focuses on interaction through networking. It gives students the experience of presenting their project to an audience that includes dozens of local industry professionals representing top institutions such as the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Purple Rose Theatre, Michigan Opera Theatre, Ann Arbor Dance Works, the Sphinx Organization, and many more. Expo activities pair students with industry professionals to discuss career paths, review resumes, and forge connections that are already creating opportunities.

“Students attending the Expo knew they would walk away with professional contacts who would be useful not just in the types of information they would share, but in genuinely wanting to build relationships,” said Kuuskoski.


Future Growth

Although EXCEL got off to a tremendous start in its first year, the growth potential is also great. One of the most exciting prospects for the next stage is expanding student support by adding an “enterprise” fund, distributed in smaller amounts than the EXCELerator funds, for travel, specific performances or recordings, or other smaller ventures. “That could provide support for hundreds of students, “said Kuuskoski.

Another goal is to robustly engage alumni in the program, bringing a steady stream of successful arts entrepreneurs back to campus to work with students. “They understand our students, they know what it was like to be here, they know the challenges that are faced when you graduate,” said Clague. “I think our students look to them as role models in a way that’s more vivid. We would love to build those relationships, and build the Alumni as Mentors network.”

Meanwhile, as students become more familiar with the program, the demand for its services is expected to grow exponentially. The School is cultivating a culture of “learning by doing” that will be apparent from the first campus visit. From the time they enroll, students will be made aware that entrepreneurial ideas are encouraged and will be supported in some way.

“We really want to carry students from their audition day to a place in their careers, maybe 10 years after graduation, where they feel like they’ve created a viable career,” said Clague. “We want those careers to not only be personally and financially rewarding, but to make a substantive contribution to society.”

“I know that this kind of work is becoming more and more important for artists,” said Martha Guth. “I feel that I am uniquely qualified now, as both a performer and an entrepreneur, to make my dreams a reality.”


By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.