After winning a Nike sponsored athletic shoe design competition during his freshman year at the Stamps School, Neil Zemba's (BFA '13) career was off to a fast, promising start. But he wasn’t content to rise alone.
Zemba used his win to help start two Detroit nonprofit organizations focused on education, employing homeless workers, and cleaning up the city — all while he was still a Stamps undergrad.
As a finalist in Nike's Future Sole Design Competition, the Saline, Michigan, native got to collaborate with pioneering shoe designer Wilson Smith. The two became friends, talking for hours by phone about their shared interests in science, product design, and socially conscious business practices.
Following his competition experience, Zemba and a classmate in his Change by Design course at Stamps started a program at Detroit Community High School to teach art students there about shoe design. A class survey had revealed many of them expected to play professional sports after college, even though there was little chance any of them might ever be drafted.
"It was like, how can we show these kids who are artistically inclined and love sports how to combine the two?" Zemba says. "Let's teach them how to design shoes."
The successful class — dubbed "BAM!" — extended to become an afterschool program, with occasional guest visits from people like Zemba's mentor Wilson Smith and Corvette designer Brett Goliff. The undergrads continued to run BAM! for a couple of years, even after they couldn't get class credit for it anymore. "I think we ended up leaving with the most independent studies ever teaching that class," Zemba says.
For an Integrated Product Development (IPD) course, Zemba and a team of U-M business and engineering students partnered with Cass Community Social Services (CCSS) to help the nonprofit organization and employer of homeless Detroit residents extend its line of products made from discarded tires. Using his contacts at Nike, Zemba developed an outsole for a sandal made from recycled tires. He also worked with CCSS to develop its own brand — Cass Green Industries — and business plan to encompass its full line of products made from waste-stream materials, including mud mats and planters.
After graduation, Zemba's interest shifted to digital design and the "internet of things." Through U-M's TechArb student venture accelerator, he helped develop a point-of-sale app for entertainment and sports venues. He went on to work with connected gardening startup Niwa to help develop their app, product, and website.
"That's more what I wanted to move into — just helping out really cool start-ups and things that I believed in and that I thought were really interesting concepts. I wanted to lend my hand and learn some new things along the way," he says.
Today, Zemba heads the Franklin, Michigan-based marketing firm Rise Digital Partners. Much of the firm's work has centered on helping medical practitioners grow their patient-base and revenues, but he's also working with retired NFL superstar Calvin Johnson and his team with marketing for his foundation dedicated to cancer research and youth programming. Zemba is also a recent board member for Teach on the Beach, a non-profit organization that pairs scholars and volunteers with communities in Ghana to create sustainable, positive teaching and learning opportunities.
"There are a lot of athletes who really want to use their brand and everything they've been blessed with to help other people, and that's also a niche I feel uniquely qualified for, because of the things I've been involved in," Zemba says.
For those looking to start their own creative venture, Zemba says to spend more time doing and less time analyzing their own validity.
"If you feel like you need to go down the practical route and make money, get a side hustle," he says. "Pay your rent and then carve out as much time as you can to work on that thing that you love."