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Zells donate $60 million to University of Michigan, support funds

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October 18-20, 2023 / Tucson, AZ
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The Story

The University of Michigan’s business school is set to receive $60 million from the Zell Family Foundation, which has now donated more than $150 million to the university over the years.

The money will go to extend programs at the Samuel Zell and Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies and create new ones.

“This gift generates tremendous opportunities for our students and is significant news in the world of entrepreneurial studies,” said Alison Davis-Blake, dean of U-M’s Ross School of Business. “The generosity of the Zell Family Foundation and its commitment to support hands-on learning opportunities will help create an exciting new fund for student business ventures and provide ongoing support for the impressive programs of the Zell Lurie Institute.”

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The gift includes $10 million for a new fund to invest in student business ventures, Davis-Blake said.

Entrepreneurship has long been a part of the business school, but has garnered especially intense interest in the past decade as students studying various disciplines see business opportunities outside large corporations and consulting firms.

“Our goal is to accelerate the learning curve and the opportunities for budding entrepreneurs, as well as to build a powerful alumni network,” Sam Zell, the chairman of Equity Group Investments in Chicago, said in prepared remarks released today. “Entrepreneurs have always been a primary driver of growth for this country. I believe that fostering entrepreneurial education is an investment in the future.”

Zell — who graduated from the Ann Arbor university in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1966 with a law degree — launched an off-campus apartment management company while he was a student at Michigan. He later invited Lurie, his Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brother, to join him.

Over the years, his business successes and failures have been both celebrated and reviled.

“All great entrepreneurs have huge fans and huge detractors,” Davis-Blake said. “It’s the nature of founding a large enterprise.”

The Zell Family Foundation and the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Family Foundation initially established the institute in 1999 with a $10 million donation.

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Since then, the institute has awarded about $4.4 million and created hundreds of start-up businesses. The Ross School has been ranked among the top graduate programs in entrepreneurship education by the Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine.

Stewart Thornhill, the institute’s executive director, said the donation will help “push the boundaries of entrepreneurial education,” and called the institute the “fuel in the university’s growing entrepreneurial engine.”

The university touts that it was first in the nation to offer a course on the subject in 1927, and among the first to set up a student-led venture fund, the Wolverine Venture Fund, in 1997. Students seek, screen and negotiate for part of the $7-million fund’s investments, primarily in early stage companies.

By the time Zell graduated from law school, he said, he was managing thousands of apartments.

Zell sold the business to Lurie, and moved back to Chicago, his hometown. There, he started Equity Group Investments, and — again — invited Lurie join him. The two entrepreneurs built a portfolio that included apartment, retail and office buildings by picking up distressed property and earning Zell the nickname gravedancer.

Lurie died in 1990.

Zell also owned media companies. In 2007, he bought the Tribune Co. and took it private. But he took the media company through a prolonged bankruptcy created by a massive debt load. Along the way he sold the Chicago Cubs, which the Tribune Co. owned. Then he left the company.

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In 2011, Zell created the Zell Entrepreneurship and Law Program at the law school. The includes a clinic that offers free legal advice to student entrepreneurs, and to train law students to work in entrepreneurial ventures.

Two years ago, Zell’s wife, Helen Zell, who graduated in 1964 with a degree in English, gave $50 million to the university’s graduate writing program.

Her gifts have led to the what the university calls a Zellowship, a year of post-graduate financial support for writers, and the Zell Visiting Writers Series.

She also regularly interacts with students and puts them in touch with professional writers, the university said, and helping to lead the Victors for Michigan campaign, which aims to raise a total of $4 billion for the university.

via Zells donate $60 million to University of Michigan.

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