Michael Strauss is the associate dean of the Sy Syms School of Business as well as a clinical professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and director of The Rennert Entrepreneurial Institute.
He also bears the intriguing title of Entrepreneur-in-Residence, and in a wide-ranging conversation with YU News, he explained how he came to possess the title and how he works with students to help them sharpen and promote their entrepreneurial ideas and skills.
Before he came to Sy Syms, he ran his own business, a management advisory firm dedicated to steering emerging growth companies. Prior to that, he had had a long career in corporate America, including 12 years at American Express, where he served as one of only three executive vice presidents of the Travel Related Services Division.
In 2007, Dr. Steven Nissenfeld, who, among the other titles he held at Sy Syms, was director of the Kukin Executive and Entrepreneurial Lecture Series, invited Strauss to come speak about his personal and professional journey. Strauss, who was born in Israel, came to the United States when he was 14, and Nissenfeld wanted people to hear about the challenges and opportunities Strauss found in his newly adopted home. “There were about 50 men and women who came to listen,” he recalled, “and I just loved it.”
Between Dr. Charles Snow, Sy Syms’s third dean, and Dr. Michael Ginzberg, the fourth, Rabbi Dr. Joel Hochman held down the fort as interim dean, and it was he who offered Strauss his first opportunity to teach a class. Strauss had never taught before, and “I was enjoying what I was doing with my own company,” but he was intrigued by the offer and decided to mull it over.
While he was considering the offer, Dr. Ginzberg came on in 2011, and he not only wanted Strauss to teach as a clinical professor but also wanted to create an entirely new (though unpaid) position for him as Entrepreneur-in-Residence. “He told me that many of the students, though smart and inventive, needed a guiding hand to help them turn their ideas into realities,” Strauss recalled, “and he thought I could be the person to do that.”
To ease the workload (after all, Strauss had a full-time job running his own company), Dr. Ginzberg told him that he only needed to come in a half hour or so before the class to talk with students, and Strauss, pleased by the experience he had had as a Kukin lecturer and curious to see what he could do to help the students, agreed to take on the responsibilities. “Again, I found myself loving the experience.”
He was soon to take on even more crucial duties as Sy Syms moved to revitalize the school under the stewardship of Dean Dr. Moses Pava. Dr. Morton Lowengrub, then the provost for YU, asked Strauss to work with Dr. Pava as associate dean to implement the programs that would lead to its growth and development, which he and Dr. Pava did until 2017, when Dr. Pava returned to the faculty and Strauss was appointed interim dean.
As interim dean, Strauss headed up the search committee to identify the new dean, “and it was one of my greatest pleasures when Dr. Noam Wasserman agreed to become our leader in 2019.”
As Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Strauss sends out an email each semester soliciting students of all three undergrad schools to come and talk to him about their ideas and goals connected to starting a business. Here’s what he sent in January:
The objective of the Entrepreneur-in-Residence program is to provide students with the opportunity to work one-on-one with a successful entrepreneur to help refine their career aspirations, to develop or to launch successful entrepreneurial businesses, and to provide immediate access to practical, real-world experience and perspectives.
The program has been very successful, empowering over 100 students every semester.
This semester, once again, I will gladly meet with interested students and assist them in launching a new business, developing a business plan or discuss any other related business challenges. You can find me at both the Wilf and the Beren campuses during the week. I will also try to visit your classes to introduce myself.
I am looking forward to an exciting year and encourage you to stop by my office, Belfer Hall 419 or to set up an appointment with me.
“Of the 100 students or so that I meet,” he noted, “about 4 or 5 will end up focusing on their ideas long enough to bring them to a level where they might find some success.” He takes them through a rigorous vetting process where he interrogates the results of a two- to three-page business plan that they are asked to develop on target markets, price points, competition, what they’ve done to protect their intellectual property and other essential elements of building out the business.
Strauss has, so to speak, also branched out as Entrepreneur-in-Residence, teaching entrepreneurship courses at the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy/Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA) and the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Central). “It’s amazing to see how these kids are motivated to come up with the ideas they come up with.” MTA holds an actual competition among the ideas, called MTA LEAD, and last June, sophomore Akiva Kra of Teaneck, New Jersey, won the competition after presenting his final business plan for modular sneakers that feature a unique zipper component, making them interchangeable for different designs while still using the same sole. Kra received seed money to help develop his product as well as continued mentoring from Strauss and industry leaders.
“Not surprisingly, many of the ideas that people propose,” he pointed out, “are apps,” and students have come up with some intriguing proposals: helping schools find therapists for their students; identifying chefs for people staying in posh resorts who would go to their homes to cook meals; reviewing a company’s bills to find overcharges from companies like UPS or FedEx and taking a percentage of the money retrieved. Some also come up with actual products, such as the student who created a sweatshirt that could be reconformed into an over-the-shoulder bag for easier carrying.
He hopes that all of this entrepreneurial energy can come together in a Sy Syms version of Shark Tank, where people lay out their ideas before a panel of judges and undergo the sharp-tongued scrutiny they need to refine their ideas and get them to market.
Asked why he does what he does, putting in the time it takes to prep for classes and meeting with hundreds of students in a year, while having a full-time job as associate dean of the School, he said, in a very simple way, what he had been saying all along about why he came to Sy Syms a dozen years ago: “I love it. The students love it, but I love it even more. I simply love it.”