By Carol Sadtler
It’s fun to dream about striking out on your own, so here’s some food for thought–and a reality check–from some DePaul entrepreneurs.
You don’t have to look far in the DePaul community to find successful entrepreneurs. A highly ranked and nationally renowned entrepreneurship program and DePaul’s Coleman Entrepreneurship Center have provided many self-starters with the tools to launch–and sustain–successful enterprises.
Learn by Example
Many successful entrepreneurs have watched someone else go first, says Raman Chadha, who teaches entrepreneurship in the Driehaus College of Business’ management department. One of the past winners of the Coleman Center’s annual entrepreneur competition, Jennifer Moran (BUS ’09), says that her grandfather started his own business. “He said he could do it better than the people he was working for,” she says. As a young girl, she saw her mother take over as its successful CEO. “She’s a great role model today,” says Moran, who is beginning to reap the rewards of her fair-trade fashion company, Greenola.
“I saw my father managing his medical practice, and I thought I would become a doctor,” says Charles Alston (BUS ’11), a Chicago native who connected with the Coleman Center as an MBA student. As an undergraduate at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he found he enjoyed mathematics more than biology. After earning his undergraduate degree and working at the Department of Health and Human Services and Bank of America, Alston financed and began a tattoo salon business in Atlanta, commuting between there and Chicago.
Alston says that although Avow Body Art was running before he went for his MBA, he used the business plan he developed in the program “as an organizing tool to refocus our agenda.”
“It’s maintaining itself right now,” says Alston, who handles financial and marketing responsibilities while his partner manages operations in Atlanta and works on establishing a new location in Dallas. “Our goal is to open up five stores in seven years.”
Little Kids, Big Dreams
Many entrepreneurs grow up knowing they’ll run their own company someday. “I always wanted to work for myself and build something,” says Michael Gardon (BUS ’10), whose electronics company seems poised for success.
“I do well on my own. I’m one of those people who likes to figure out solutions to problems; I don’t necessarily like being told what to do. As a little kid, I always wanted to be in a situation where I control the outcome,” Gardon says.
Ashish Patwa (BUS ’10) says that when he was very young, he read a lot about people who started their own businesses and he planned his future “even though I didn’t know what I would be doing or what kind of business it would be.”
Siri, Look Out
A childhood vision, his technical and business education, and a wealth of software engineering experience with many companies laid the groundwork for Patwa’s development of a personal assistant application for the Android smartphone–similar to the iPhone’s Siri, but with certain advantages.
“I’ve been interested in [artificial intelligence] and its practical uses for a very long time,” Patwa says. As he watched the smartphone market burgeon, Patwa researched and waited, looking for the best platform and the right market opportunity. He focused on creating a personal assistant because he needed one, and he figured everyone else did, too. “We are bombarded with so much digital information every day. We need someone who works for us, who understands our preferences and helps us organize all this information,” he says.
Patwa started his company, Tronton, in 2010, and last November began marketing his app, which he named “Cluzee.” Demand is growing, as is his company. “Cluzee will be available internationally in the next months,” he says.
Patwa added a DePaul MBA to his undergraduate degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He says that he selected his MBA program based on DePaul’s strong reputation and that the Coleman Center was instrumental in helping him launch his business. “It was my first venture, and I needed a lot of advice. I still keep in touch with alumni and go to events,” he says.
A Bit of Luck
Gardon’s opportunity came when his MBA entrepreneurship course work fortuitously intersected with the project of a family friend, a seasoned electronics engineer. The friend and his colleague had an idea they were working up to start a company. “I kept asking them questions, poking holes in their ideas,” Gardon says.
Though the two engineers thought they didn’t need him, they let Gardon use their business for a project in his Financing New Ventures class at DePaul. When the engineers had trouble fundraising for their startup, Gardon had the knowledge to help them generate seed money, and they were off and running.
In September 2010, Gardon made a classic entrepreneur’s choice: A prestigious firm offered him a position in its risk management practice, but he joined Stellamar, the business he helped create, as a partner. Stellamar creates software code that can program microelectronic circuits that have applications in harsh climates like outer space. The product is a building block that makes possible functionality that is much cheaper and faster to implement than existing methods, and the company has as customers two giant companies that do projects in space.
These days, Gardon is creating marketing strategy and has made a couple of deals. He says he’s having the time of his life.
“I never thought it would just come to me, but I always thought that I would be doing things like this. Once you start unlocking some of the creative things–I have ideas for a lot of things now. I’ve found my sandbox now, and I can kind of play around.”
Alston echoes that enthusiasm. “All businesses are the same. You have to find out who you’re advertising to and find the best way to get them.”
Trained as a fine artist, Moran displays her creativity as she moves her Earth-friendly, fair-trade clothing business from the basic polo shirts she began with to higher-end fashion. Her vibrant, colorful clothing and accessories, designed by her and made by women entrepreneurs in Bolivia, are sold online and in more than 150 boutiques nationwide.
Determined to create a for-profit business that contributes to the sustainability of natural and social environments, Moran found in the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center the resources she needed–and needs still. “The biggest thing I got from DePaul was how to make connections, how to connect with people,” she says.
A member of the center’s alumni board, she plans to stay connected as she creates ways to balance growth and sustainability. “How do you grow a socially responsible business to be the next Nike? Should you grow? How much do you want to grow without compromising your company’s values?” she wonders.
Are You Cut Out for This?
Chada offers some questions to ask yourself: Are you tenacious, self-directed in a non-structured environment and willing to sell yourself and your ideas? Can you deal with uncertainty, adapt to change and learn new skills? Do you have savings to support yourself for up to two years?
A Boost for Entrepreneurs
The Coleman Center’s annual Launch DePaul offers teams led by DePaul students or 2011 graduates the opportunity to compete for cash awards. This year’s first-place team was led by student David Finseth who, together with his partners, runs Media Revamp, a media conversion and production service.