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ENTREPRENEURSHIP@ Kellogg: Newest Zell Fellows Settle In

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Chicago Entrepreneurship Community Is on Fire
Working out of 1871 also helped her connect to and draw from a larger entrepreneurial community. “The Chicago entrepreneurship community seems like it’s on fire from the perspective of current students, and 1871 is the most visible way for Kellogg students to encounter that,” she says.

Zell Fellows
Zell Fellows Program Director David Schonthal

Schonthal, too, cites Kellogg’s proximity to Chicago as a major advantage for would-be MBA entrepreneurs. “Chicago is a super diverse economy—unlike the West Coast, which is heavily weighted in tech, or New York, which is heavily weighted in finance and media,” he says. “Maybe it seems ironic, given its location in the middle of the country, or maybe not, but it has this incredibly diverse ecosystem. A lot of our students find it’s a wonderful place to get started.”

Kellogg is also really good at taking full advantage of the fact that it’s on a campus that has a lot of world-class programs. “From the business school to biological sciences to engineering—we wind up finding a lot of opportunities for our students to collaborate with students in these other programs, and they end up collaborating in really amazing ways,” he says. “What happens is we have these young students getting exposure to advanced R&D, advanced materials, biological sciences,” he continues. “I think it is really cool that our students have their business acumen complemented by students with such technical acumen.”

In an effort to foster precisely this kind of cross-pollination, Northwestern recently launched an 11,000-square-foot, multi-disciplinary shared working space located near Kellogg, the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Communication and multiple other research institutes. Coined The Garage—it was built in a former parking garage—it is open to the entire university, so it is always housing startups of all kinds, Schonthal says.

The diverse expertise provided by Kellogg’s entrepreneurship faculty is also a huge value add, he says. “Faculty members with strong research backgrounds are complemented by faculty who bring tremendous practical experience, from venture capital firms, operating roles, design,” Schonthal rattles off.

Schonthal has been impressed with each of the Zell Fellows cohorts that have come through the program. This year’s is the first to feature multiple businesses focused on education, such as Pircon’s, and also several that have very strong social missions, he says. And, for the first time this year, there is also a nonprofit included in the mix.

Are Social Impact Ventures Trending?
Does this reflect growing interest in social impact at Kellogg overall? “I can only speak from what I see, but my answer is yes, absolutely,” he says. Schonthal teaches the Discovery course of the new venture creation track, which calls on students to bring problems into the classroom that they are passionate about solving. “Having taught this class to I don’t know how many groups of 50+ students over the past four years, more and more every year and every quarter these problems trend toward things with high degrees of social mission, impact, community orientation,” he says.

Just as Pircon has her near-term goals and grander vision for The Graide Network, Schonthal has near- and longer-term ideas for the Zell Fellows Program. Just a few weeks ago, seven students kicked off an additional Zell Fellows cohort focused on entrepreneurship through acquisition. “Up until now, we’ve been really focused on startups, but not all entrepreneurship involves starting a company from scratch,” he says. A pilot this year, the Zell Fellows Acquisition and Ownership track is expected to launch at scale next year, with a cohort of 10.

Beyond that, Schonthal would love to see the program expand into industry-specific tracks—perhaps in healthcare, social impact, real estate. “I don’t want to see us add more students to individual cohorts—I think the smallness really makes it special,” he says. “But I do think the shared experience of going out and building healthcare businesses, for example, could be valuable.”

What really sets the Zell Fellows Program apart, Schonthal stresses, is that as much as it may support the growth of a venture, it is really designed to support the growth of the entrepreneur. “I think it’s pretty unique,” he says. “Not only will it pay dividends in terms of building businesses today—we are betting long on all of these students, and we think this is a really formative experience that will pay dividends far into the future.”

View a complete list of Zell Fellows past and present.