Entrepreneurship Comes of Age at Chicago Universities

Last week it was announced that Linda Darragh, Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at the Polsky Center at Chicago Booth, was recruited away by Northwestern’s Kellogg School to run its entrepreneurship centers. As I wrote Linda in a message when I heard the news, “as an alum and a member of the entrepreneurship community, I couldn’t be happier.”

When I attended Kellogg from 1992-1994, the entrepreneurship major was introduced and I was one of the first to sign up. At the time, it was a patchwork of courses from the various departments at Kellogg: new product development, venture capital, innovation, etc. Over the course of the 1990s, Kellogg built the program the right way, bringing in faculty, introducing new courses, and tightening up existing ones.

But as entrepreneurship became commonplace in the 2000s, at virtually all universities whether or not they had a business school, Kellogg’s program began to lose its luster, at least to alumni and the community. It remained one of the best business schools but it wasn’t exactly admired for entrepreneurship.

As alumni, many of us weren’t quite sure what they were trying to do. For years, Kellogg’s approach to entrepreneurship was a focus on venture capital; if an entrepreneur didn’t plan for or need millions in equity capital, well, then he wasn’t really an entrepreneur. That’s an arrogant approach that ignores lifestyle businesses, bootstrapping, and plain old statistics.

When I was hired to run the Coleman Center at DePaul in 2004, I immediately reached out to my alma mater’s program, then run by Steve Rogers, who taught the venture capital course when I attended ten years prior (and has been one of Kellogg’s top professors for years). I was curious to learn from his experiences, understand the future of entrepreneurship centers, and explore collaboration opportunities. Steve never returned my phone calls, and I subsequently learned that wasn’t uncommon.

Kellogg’s entrepreneurship program (which then consisted of two or three different entrepreneurship centers) wasn’t connected at all to the community. In the mid-2000s, as the major local universities began building their centers (DePaul’s Coleman, Booth’s Polsky, IIT’s Knapp), Kellogg was nowhere to be seen with its own Levy Institute and Heizer Center. It was as if they built a fortress in Evanston, didn’t want anyone to come visit, and certainly didn’t want to leave their grounds. On three separate occasions early in my tenure at DePaul, I tried to collaborate with Steve and Kellogg; again, no calls returned.

That’s the way it was through Steve’s departure from the Levy Institute about a year ago. But after months of quiet, it seems like last week’s announcement was a sign of change. It was a sign that the new dean at Kellogg, Sally Blount, is making entrepreneurship a key thrust in her vision for the business school. She went after one of the best and got her.

Linda Darragh has a stellar reputation in the community, and has for at least a couple decades. She’s approachable, smart, hard-working, and cares deeply about entrepreneurs. So when I heard the news, I was tickled. I knew she would not only rebuild the entrepreneurship program but that she was likely to get alumni involved and get the program connected to the community. I firmly believe that, under Linda’s leadership, Kellogg’s program is going to emerge as a major force in the city and the U.S., much like the Polsky Center has done in recent years.

It then got me thinking about the movement within entrepreneurship centers in Chicago, having just left DePaul’s Coleman Center myself. Now there would be three programs in the city which would have changes in leadership in the same few months. And in the past two years, UIC itself has undergone a major transition, with Rod Shrader and Michelle Dorvil Agbejule taking over from Gerry Hills after several decades of his leadership.

To me, all of this was an important sign. It was a sign of maturity in entrepreneurship programs, which became ready for new blood and new leadership, no different than companies as they grow and develop. Some people are wired to build things, others are ideal to grow them. Some institutions realize the need to reinvent; others don’t. Those things don’t always match up, causing a need for new leadership, new ideas, and new directions.

That thought was validated when I got a call yesterday from a Crain’s reporter asking about my departure from DePaul as well as Linda Darragh’s. It turns out that they’re doing a story on the very same topic (although she was trying to dig up dirt on DePaul and have me comment on “Kellogg vs. Booth”, two subjects I wasn’t going to discuss).

After ending the phone call, I realized that university-based entrepreneurship programs have become a part of the conversation in Chicago. Not only are they generating hundreds of new entrepreneurs every year but now they’re generating news. Over eight years ago, when I started at the Coleman Center, I don’t think I would have imagined that entrepreneurship centers would become so important to Chicago’s business scene. But it seems as if they have, and that’s a good thing.

2 comments

  1. Erik Severinghaus

    Raman – fantastic post. I agree with everything you have to say in here, and have had very similar experiences at Kellogg as a graduating PT student and active entrepreneur. An exciting time to be in the area, for sure.

  2. Pingback: A Recap of April Blog Posts | ramanations

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