​The Coleman Entrepreneurship Center — part of DePaul’s acclaimed Entrepreneurship Program — helps students and business owners turn good ideas into concrete reality.
“The Center extends the teaching of entrepreneurship in a real-world way,” says Raman Chadha, executive director. “In fact, the Center itself is an entrepreneurial concept; I can count on one hand the number of schools around the country that are doing anything like what we’re doing here.”
A career center for students not interested in pursuing a traditional path
The Coleman Entrepreneurship Center provides two services for students: the Blueprint Program and Launch DePaul. “The Center is like a virtual business incubator,” says April Lane, associate director.
“In the Blueprint Program, we help student entrepreneurs think through their ideas, write a business plan, and network with potential investors, suppliers, and strategic partners. We provide workshops and coaching in strategic planning, financial planning, and fund raising. And we play devil’s advocate. Students have to convince us that their ideas are not just clever but viable.”
“Our goal is not that the student businesses will take off in 10 years or even in five,” says Chadha. “We want our student entrepreneurs to succeed right away. That’s the main reason behind both the Blueprint Program and Launch DePaul, our annual new venture competition that awards a monetary prize and professional services to two winning ideas, one in the for-profit sector and one in the not-for-profit sector.”
This year, the Center will work with 140 student entrepreneurs. Three years ago, that number was only 18, two years ago 56, and last year 91. In addition, 55 teams competed in the 2010 Launch DePaul competition compared to just 25 in 2009. “This staggering growth shows the significant amount of entrepreneurial activity among our students,” says Chadha. “Furthermore, 20-30 percent of students who come to the Center for support are already running a business.”
One student who started a business with her winnings from Launch DePaul is Jennifer Moran, whose company, GREENOLA, sells fair trade, sustainable clothing produced by women entrepreneurs in Bolivia.  “I had an idea — that earth-friendly fashion is possible — that some consumers would care where their clothes come from, who’s making them, and what they’re made of,” she says. “When I started researching business schools to find one that would support my idea, DePaul was the best choice.”
At the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center, Jennifer met a board member of a non-profit running Solidarity Clothing, which links indigenous Bolivian sewing cooperatives with U.S. organizations, companies, and schools.
“Three weeks later, I was in Bolivia, getting a first-hand education about the business,” she says. “In the past year, I’ve learned how to pitch ideas, ask for money, and manage a global operation. When I won Launch DePaul in 2009, I appreciated the capital, but even more I valued the connections that opened doors to gift shows in Chicago and New York. My sales in just a few weeks of the new year were much greater than in the prior 12 months. Now, I’m already expanding my business to feature the work of emerging fashion artists who use organic materials; these entrepreneurs are getting an opportunity to launch a career and I’m adding on ‘made in the USA’ product lines.”
One unusual feature of the Center is its accessibility and diversity.
“The typical entrepreneurial center serves business students, and we do too, of course,” says Chadha. “But we also attract and work with students from other degree programs at DePaul — students from the law school or CDM, from the theater school or the school of education, from LA&S or the college of communication — they’re all welcome here.”
Also unique to the Center is mentoring, as Lane explains:
“A lot of schools have entrepreneur programs or business plan competitions, but right now we’re one of only a few schools with one-on-one advising, complemented by mentoring. Our 10-12 mentors — business owners from the community — help students appreciate the challenges and rewards of launching and running a business. Because of our mentors, potential investors find our students to be realistic and well-rounded in their presentations and proposals.”
A member of the Center’s strategic board, Al Herbach, an entrepreneurial consultant and business strategist, mentors three students. “At the Center, entrepreneurial students get the skills they need in planning, finance, HR, marketing, and business systems. The Coleman Entrepreneurship Center allows students to try something new in a safe place.”
A “go to” place for business owners looking for real-world insights
The Center also provides services and programs to working entrepreneurs in the Chicago business community.
Its newest offering is the Business Owner Academy — an initiative offering business owners educational opportunities and peer-to-peer roundtables that meet regularly. Herbach, who will facilitate a roundtable scheduled to meet in the western suburbs, explains how this service will fill a gap in the community:
“The CEOs of smaller businesses — say under $5 million — don’t really have anyone to talk to. We’re going to put seven or eight together in room to share war stories for 3½ hours each month for one year. They’ll be able to share experiences and learn from each other, and their free exchange of ideas will be built on relationships of respect and trust.”
“Based on research, we think that the Business Owner Academy is the first of its kind in the country,” says Chadha. “This is just one more way the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center stands out as an extraordinary resource for both students and the business community.”