Off of the train tracks at 3618 Walker Ave., there is a two-story brick building, where what happens inside is unlike anything else on the University of Memphis campus.
At the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship, U of M students are being mentored through the process of developing their ideas and creating startups. The structure at the Crews Center is much more informal than typical campus services in order to better promote innovation and creativity among student entrepreneurs.
Originally called the Crews Ventures Lab, it was envisioned as an incubator for startups —typically university research for later commercialization. However, Crews Center director Mike Hoffmeyer, suggested the University reevaluate the function of the operation.
“An incubator by definition is very exclusive,” he said. “What I recommended to the university was not to let go of the incubator concept, but to broaden it. Let’s create our own destiny.”
Expanding the idea of the Crews Center opened the door for it to be an environment for any student who has an idea for a startup, regardless if it is researched based or a cool idea, to utilize and perfect that idea for commercialization. More than simply that, however, Hoffmeyer feels that the purpose of the center is to influence the entire university to foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship.
Hoffmeyer expressed that the culture of innovation is contagious. Saying that once people experience it, they get attracted to it and come back with a desire to get more involved.
Long term, the desire to foster a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation expands beyond the train tracks and into the community. Hoffmeyer identifies the University of Memphis as the key player that can significantly affect the viability of the city as a hub of entrepreneurial activity.
Adversely, one of the more pressing issues preventing the fulfillment of this desire is the lack of adept entrepreneurial talent that remains in the city after they graduate. He hopes that serving as an outlet to that talent promotes growth in the entrepreneurial community.
Along with the resources and personalized help the Crews Center provides, it also hosts several events that provide entrepreneurs with developmental strategies and give feedback to potential startups.
The Crews Center hosted a workshop on March 25 that focused on the strategic use of social media. University of Memphis Department of Journalism professor Darrin Devault spoke to a crowd of more than 20 students and local entrepreneurs on the second floor of the Crews Center. Throughout the 45-minute speech, Devault provided the group with practical ways to effectively promote and communicate an idea to the public.
Devault, who also serves as the adviser for the University of Memphis Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter, recently undertook a new project in conjunction with the Crews Center.
Last year during the fall, Devault was approached by senior journalism student, Tom Wilcox, about the possibility of starting a student-run public relations and creative firm. After organizing their idea based on the PRSSA guidelines and looking at the structure of other student-run public relation firms, Devault and Wilcox attended IDEAS (Imagine, Develop, Engage, Assess, Startup) Weekend — a three day event where a team pitches, develops and presents an idea in front of a crowd in hopes to win a cash prize hosted by the Crews Center.
Though their idea did not win, the experience led to the creation of Meeman 901 Strategies, the student-run public relations firm on the second floor of the Crews Center. Meeman 901 provides communication strategies, writing, editing, photography services, graphic design, logo and brand development.
“Those are some of the areas that we feel like we can help people in the community — particularly non-profits,” Devault said. “More importantly, we can lend our talents and skills to student entrepreneurs that are working through the Crews Center.”
Right now, Meeman 901 is working with Memphis Lights Gas & Water (MLG&W) and the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) with a social media campaign for the upcoming Plus-1 program telethon.
“It gives them business experience,” Devault expressed. “It shows them how to meet with a business client, be professional, be courteous to the client, suggest ideas to the client and then actually follow through with what the client ask. All of these experiences allow our students to gain practical experience and allows them to put into action the things they are hopefully learning in the classroom.”
Meeman 901 holds meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings from 9 a.m. until noon.
Though driven by entrepreneurship, Hoffmeyer foresees the Crews Center being a vessel of positive change and calls students that are entrepreneurial by nature to take a risk.
“When you are a student in the university, frankly, you are never in a better place to startup than you are now because you don’t have all of those burdens,” he said. “Its really great to want to start something or create change and all of that. But the most fundamental skill, attitude or belief that you have to have as an entrepreneur is belief in yourself and the reason for that is if you don’t believe in yourself you’re never going to cause anyone else to believe in you.”
The Crews Center will present Tiger Startup School: Crafting an Investors Pitch on April 2. It will hosts its second IDEAS Weekend on April 11.