Alumni give back to students through mentorship, real-world experiences

Wakeling Gendron Entrepreneurial Scholars Program closes its first year with lasting impact

| Author: CBAnews

Stephen Wakeling and Erin Gendron in front of an airplane.
Stephen Wakeling (left) and Erin Gendron (right)

The Wakeling Gendron Entrepreneurial Scholars Program, founded by Central Michigan University alumni Stephen Wakeling, ’03 and Erin Gendron, ’06, started the way many entrepreneurial ventures do — by using interests and talents to fulfill opportunities. 

Having been involved in the New Venture Challenge in years’ past, the two weren’t strangers to coaching students and recent graduates. Then, 2020 hit. 

“From the number of phone calls I received from students and recent alumni asking me about how to deal with the changing world, it became clear that these young people need more of this interpersonal help,” Wakeling said. “We realized they need a different kind of mentor.”

Through their passion for coaching and mentoring combined with their vast business experience, Wakeling and Gendron saw an opportunity to give back in a unique way. They started the Wakeling Gendron Entrepreneurial Scholars Program at the start of the 2023-2024 academic year.

“We thought a lot about what sorts of things we could provide that would have the biggest impact,” Gendron said. “A few key things we wanted to include were coaching sessions, networking and relationship building.”

A successful first year

The program started with a trip to Wakeling and Gendron’s home base: Atlanta.

“I didn’t have crazy expectations going into it, but our first trip to Atlanta blew my hair back,” said Fenton sophomore Mela Hammond. “Stephen and Erin were very much interested in what we all wanted to get out of the program and they tailored the trip around that.”

Stephen Wakeling and The Wakeling Gendron Entrepreneurial Scholars Program students at SXSW
Stephen Wakeling and students from The Wakeling Gendron Entrepreneurial Scholars Program at SXSW.

Additional trips to Detroit, Austin for the South by Southwest Conference and Traverse City followed. Stephen and Erin introduced the students to other entrepreneurs, connected with them as a group and one-on-one for guidance and mentorship, and exposed them to different networking opportunities. Regular cohort meetings ensued, where students planned their own events to share their learnings with their peers.

One such event was a “fail panel,” where Wakeling and other entrepreneurs spoke at CMU about embracing failure as an entrepreneur.

“Stephen and Erin are just so student-centric. They’re so open to sharing the lessons they’ve learned in life and business,” said Julie Messing, director of CMU’s Isabella Bank Institute for Entrepreneurship and an entrepreneurship faculty member. “Their level of involvement has been incredibly impactful for the students.”

Farmington Hills senior Deja Granger has received more than just valuable skills to take with her when she graduates. She’s also gained a community and self-confidence as a young professional.

“Stephen and Erin have given me the confidence to see that I belong in any room I walk into,” Granger said. “I love that I know I can reach out to them — or anyone else in the cohort — for help. I’ve built really meaningful relationships that I know I can lean on.”

As for year two, the program’s founders hope for much of the same: mentoring students in the ways that are most impactful to them.

“As an entrepreneur, I’ve spent a lot of time gathering groups of people together and chasing down a vision that not so long ago felt like an impossibility,” Wakeling said. “We have a really great group that isn’t just part of the scholars program — they’re now part of the team. I’m excited to see what we can continue to build together.”

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