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ENTREPRENEURSHIP@ Kellogg: Newest Zell Fellows Settle In

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An Accelerator of People, Not Businesses
But Schonthal stresses that the program’s success metrics are not tied to whether or not the students raise funding or successfully launch their businesses when they graduate, though many do. “We are really focused on giving people a very unique experiential opportunity so that down the road when they get this entrepreneurial itch they have the confidence to follow that path,” he says. “The program is meant to be an accelerator not of businesses but of people.”

Zell Fellows
Kellogg second-year MBA student Blair Pircon

For Blair Pircon, a second-year Kellogg MBA student selected as one of the 2015-16 Zell Fellows, the resources provided by the program have helped her develop as an entrepreneur while also developing her venture. Called The Graide Network, it’s an online marketplace connecting teachers with qualified teaching assistants who can grade student assignments. “The Graide Network is really unique and will revolutionize how teachers are teaching,” Pircon says. The “graiders” are highly qualified and vetted undergraduate students training for careers in teaching. They grade and correct the assignments to fulfill fieldwork hours as part of their degree. Pircon’s company charges a technology and management fee for the service, which is paid by schools on behalf of the teachers.

Before coming to Kellogg, Pircon worked on Wall Street as a senior equity research associate at Robert W. Baird & Co. covering the education industry. That’s where she became passionate about the need for a technology revolution in schools. But her entrepreneurial roots run far deeper. “I’m a fourth generation entrepreneur, so it’s really been in my blood and always something I wanted to pursue,” she says. It began with her great-grandfather, who started a chicken and egg company in Omaha, Nebraska. “I will be the first female entrepreneur in the line, which I really take great pride in,” she says.

Pircon went to Kellogg with the hopes that her entrepreneurial path would begin sometime in her two years there. She credits the school with facilitating opportunities for like-minded students to meet each other and pitch ideas, and it was at one such event that Pircon met a former teacher who underscored how much teachers are in need of more support. “I was able to pair my market research background and view on education technology with a teacher who had been in the classroom—that was a magical moment,” she says.

Pircon then took part in Kellogg’s new venture creation track, which is titled “Discover. Test. Launch.” She skipped over the first course, “New Venture Discovery,” diving right into the second, “New Venture Development,” and proceeding from there into the third, “New Venture Launch.” As part of these later courses, students take the ideas they’ve come up with in the Discovery course, develop prototypes, stress test them with real customers and understand what helps position ventures for a successful launch. Having just completed the final Launch course, Pircon is now taking a course on business law for entrepreneurs while doing a ton of work outside the classroom to run a live pilot with customers for The Graide Network.

“Right now we are about to launch our second big pilot,” she says. It will extend over 15 weeks and include a larger group of both teachers and graiders than the previous pilot. Schools taking part in this pilot are spread across Illinois and Tennessee, and graiders currently are drawn from eight different universities. The hope eventually is that The Graide Network will expand nationwide.

Zell Fellows
The Graide Network homepage

Support from the Zell Fellows Program is already helping her startup complete this necessary testing, Pircon says. The weekly and monthly check-ins with advisors tailored to her venture—along with customized executive coaching—have also been enormously valuable, she adds. “Trying to start a business and become a business leader at the same time is hard—programs like Zell really help.” And the tight-knit community that grows within each cohort of fellows is also great, she adds. “We are always asking each other about everything you can imagine, from accounting software to referrals for graphic designers.”

Finally, she’s found that participating in the program has helped keep her accountable. “I have set a range of goals along the way. My goal at graduation is to be fully funded through a combination of grants and early investors,” she says. “After that, I plan to continue pursuing this full force for the next decade and grow as much as we can.”

Weekly accountability check-ins with each other and advisors help keep the Zell Fellows on track both in the near term and with regard to the big picture, she says. “What we are maniacally focused on in the near term is operating a pilot that is successful for graiders and teachers, and then we plan to scale that in the future.”

Beyond the Zell Fellows Program and the new venture creation track, Pircon also praises Kellogg’s support for social impact entrepreneurs. She won a social impact award and funding from Kellogg and edtech hub LEAP Innovations that allowed her to work on her business full time throughout the summer out of 1871, a co-working space for entrepreneurs in downtown Chicago. “That helped us build the first prototype of our platform and line up users,” she says.