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Prominent venture capitalist, MLaw grad shares some of what it takes in ZEAL talk

Prominent Venture Capitalist, MLaw Grad Shares Some of What It Takes in ZEAL Talk

By John Masson
April 5, 2013

Companies like Starbucks, Facebook, and Google have one thing in common, said Chris Rizik, '86, during a recent talk at Michigan Law.

Their explosive growth wouldn't have happened without venture capital.

Rizik ought to know. He's chief executive officer of Renaissance Venture Capital Fund—a $110 million, Ann Arbor-based "fund of funds" that's helping make Ann Arbor and southeast Michigan the center of the bulls-eye for the next generation of entrepreneurial ventures.

"I didn't get to venture capital in a planned way," Rizik told a group of Michigan Law students during a talk presented this week by the Zell Entrepreneurship and Law (ZEAL) Program.

Rizik went from Michigan Law to Dickinson Wright, where he became a partner.

"But I set myself up in my law career to do something entrepreneurial," he said. "I just didn't know what it was going to be."

Rizik found out when he was approached by a fellow Michigan Law grad—a seasoned entrepreneur with big ideas named Rick Snyder, '82. Rizik served as Snyder's attorney while they set up a venture capital fund, and the two were partners for 12 years until Snyder won his first term as governor of Michigan.

Since then, Rizik founded and has served as CEO of Renaissance, which, in part, helps turn more than $2 billion in research at Michigan's three big research universities into jobs and economic vibrancy in the state.

"Venture capital is the driver of the economy, and has been for 40 years," he said. In fact, 20 percent of today's American economic activity can be attributed to companies funded with venture capital.

Underpinning his interest in venture capital, he said, is a deeply entrepreneurial spirit which Rizik told the group can be of great service during a legal career.

The same sorts of things drew him to entrepreneurship that draw most people, he said. He wanted to have an impact. He wanted to create something from scratch. And he wanted a lengthy, interesting, and ultimately satisfying career.

"When I graduated from the University of Michigan Law School there was a track you went on," he said. "Find the biggest law firm you can, and maybe work there for the rest of your life."

Obviously, times have changed since then in the legal profession and everywhere else. Especially in Michigan, the state hardest hit by the Great Recession, the resulting resurgence of an entrepreneurial culture is infusing a new generation with bold ideas, Rizik said.

Even those new lawyers who find themselves at a traditional firm owe it to themselves to take an entrepreneurial approach to their careers, he said—even if that means they sometimes have to overcome the bureaucracy that builds up in an institutional setting.

For lawyers who take an entrepreneurial tack outside of a law firm, Rizik said, it's important to remember that law is an important tool, but it's not the only tool. Critical thinking, taught so well at Michigan Law, is also important for entrepreneurs. And especially in settings outside of law firms, a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur needs to be what Rizik called the "thoughtful compass" of the organization.

Rizik wound up his talk by talking about the alarm clock rule.

"If you're pushing the snooze button three times every morning, that says something about your day," he said.

Better to do something that makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning.

"I haven't pressed the snooze button in 13 years," Rizik said. "In fact, I don't think I've even heard my alarm clock, because I can't wait to get to work."

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