Despite having his hand in two startup companies, BSI student Jeff Zhang does not consider himself an entrepreneur.
“I call myself a ‘wantrepreneur’,” says the focused 21-year-old, adding that an entrepreneur is someone who successfully convinces investors to buy into their product or service, which is later made available on the market for consumers. “Entrepreneurship is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot. People don’t understand what it really takes to be an entrepreneur. It’s not just about coming up with ideas—that’s the easy part. The hard part is the execution.”
Jeff’s journey began when he and two other UM students, Darren Hou and Sean Hsu, founded Berry Logistics, LLC in April 2013. Through Berry Logistics, the trio is developing a product called The Berry Tag, an impact sensor that notifies businesses and consumers that their packaging has been damaged during shipping and handling.
Throughout the year, the team hustled to gain exposure, resources, mentoring, and funding. They completed The Michigan Collegiate Innovation Prize — a six-month program that pairs student teams with mentors and allows them to present their company to a panel of judges for prizes at the program’s completion — and competed at the MIT-China Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum, an annual two-day conference that includes an entrepreneurship contest. Jeff and his team also received grants from the Zell Lurie Institute and UM’s Center for Entrepreneurship.
Though Jeff has tabled his engagement with Berry Logistics for now, he is working on a new venture for a business practicum class he’s taking, Financing Research Commercialization. In the class, graduate and undergrad students form teams to build tech-based businesses. Jeff’s team is working on AppKey, an alternative Android lock screen.
As a member of the first cohort of bachelor’s students, Jeff is enjoying the education he is receiving at UMSI. One highlight, he says, was participating in the Entrepreneurship Program’s annual New York Innovation Trek, during which student teams pitched to entrepreneurs like Tumblr, StartUp Health and JSTOR to get feedback on their customer research. Jeff and his team pitched the company Foodeez. “Our idea was essentially an Airbnb for authentic homecooking,” he explains. “We focused on the problem that international students have a difficult time finding authentic cuisine in Ann Arbor. For people who are nostalgic or food adventurists, they can use Foodeez to get that authentic experience from people willing to cook those types of food.”
Born in Ann Arbor and raised in Shanghai, Jeff transferred to Michigan from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At Michigan he was enrolled in the informatics program in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. His passion for learning led him to take graduate level courses and make connections with UMSI professors prior to applying for the bachelor’s program. “I’ve found mentors here who are willing to unconditionally impart knowledge and wisdom,” he says regarding what led him to apply to the UMSI bachelor’s program, citing professors Cliff Lampe, John King and Melissa Levine.
“The classes are teaching us valuable and relevant skills for the real world,” he says. “I’m a big fan of the idea that there is a self-learning component [at UMSI]—you get out of it as much as you put in.”