Shift Collaborative: Providing Creative Space and Community for Tech Students with Business on the Brain

Funded by an alum, there's a place on campus for those who live to hack.

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Located in a house just off U-M’s campus, Shift Collaborative is home to a student group that exists to nurture and facilitate its members’ fresh and creative ideas for new applications, programs, products, or startup businesses.

Originally the brainchild of U-M alumnae Nancy Chow and backed by funding from former University of Michigan and NFL football player Dhani Jones, Shift Collaborative was founded in the fall of 2013.

So what happens at Shift? Computer Science student Tom Erdmann, one of Shift’s leaders, describes the house’s place in the creative process as a middle ground between think tank and startup incubator.

It’s a House…

The house, a two-story Tudor-style, is fueled in part by donations from backers as well as electronics provided by Microsoft. As a private house, not a university or office building, Shift provides flexibility to its denizens in their working schedules and has no set hours of operation. Because only four of its members actually reside at Shift’s physical location, a majority of the house is group space and can be – and is – used as needed. The basement, for instance, is currently partly occupied by one student’s prototype for a wind turbine component to add to home solar paneling installations.

While Erdmann acknowledges that students can work effectively anywhere on campus, he says that there is a different dynamic when students are off campus at a house not directly affiliated with the university. The social dynamics are different than at the library or at a coffee house. Being surrounded by a group of similar-minded young thinkers gives rise to driving and intense discussions about the projects each individual is currently pursuing. The Shift house is an opportunity for inventors, not a requirement, says Erdmann, and Shift’s enabling space exists to provide its members with the environment they need, and not to place requirements upon them.

…and a Community…

While populated heavily by creators with backgrounds in computer science, Shift is open to accepting members from all backgrounds and fields of study.

Students who wish to join Shift’s ranks must apply and attend social events and workshops, which the leaders use to gauge how the potential members will interact in a group environment. Finally, interested students sit down with the Shift leadership in order to further discuss their ideas, passions and goals. This process helps Shift to build a membership that is passionate about creativity, collaboration, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

… As Well as a Facilitator…

Shift isn’t just a workspace, Erdmann says, it’s a facilitator. Students who join Shift sometimes come in with a startup idea already in process, while others have no idea what they want to do. For creators with more developed ideas, Shift can work as a catalyst, providing students with connections to professionals who may be able to help them to grow their project further, such as branding or legal experts. Shift’s collective network recently connected one of its creators to someone with expertise in running dance clubs, as the creator’s business idea was to enhance the club-going experience while reducing reliance on club promoters.

For students with a less established concept, collaborating through Shift can focus their work and provide energy and to move forward. In either case, Shift is able to facilitate progress and goal-oriented thinking by catering to students who are at many different waypoints in their creative enterprise.

…And a Place for Additional Opportunity.

Members of Shift tend to be (or want to be) connected tech-wise and are motivated to organize workshops throughout the semester that provide knowledge about many different aspects of the entrepreneurial world. Last year Jeff Lawson, U-M alumni and co-founder of the successful company Twilio, talked to a group of Shift members about starting a company, the pitfalls he encountered, and the mistakes that everyone should avoid. Another recent workshop covered multiple aspects of copywriting in the startup world and was headed by Nemo Chu, director of customer success at Kissmetrics.

In Erdmann’s eyes, Shift is an ideal enabling space for students to pursue their dreams and passions, open to all students with drive and tech saavy. And Shift itself is a project: Erdmann insists that every year the collective is learning and improving their processes in order to demonstrate viability and to learn both what they are doing well and what they need to improve upon. This self-reflection will manifest itself as Shift attempts to replicate; the group is currently curating a “how to” guide for establishing successful collaboratives like itself at other campuses across the country.

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