DePaul University’s Coleman Entrepreneurship Center (CEC) summarizes its mission in four words: do good, do well. It’s a message teenagers embraced last spring at the Gary Comer Youth Center on the South Side of Chicago, where the CEC taught them how to develop their entrepreneurial skills to do good and do well.
A series of CEC faculty and board members, including DePaul alumni, visited the youth center from February to May to share their experiences as start-up founders and facilitate hands-on learning about entrepreneurship. Part of the youth center’s High School Smarts program, the initiative aligns Comer’s mission to develop the full potential, talent and skills of young people and DePaul’s Vincentian mission to engage and empower people in underserved Chicago communities. Frances Comer, wife of the late Gary Comer, the founder of Lands’ End who launched the youth center, suggested the educational partnership to show teens how entrepreneurship can create opportunity.
Fredricka Holloway, youth employment manager at the Comer Youth Center, says the center pursued the partnership because it’s important for young people to learn about entrepreneurship as a potential path to success. “Entrepreneurship fosters creativity, the ability to address community and societal problems, and access to wealth and opportunities,” she says. “Our children must have a foundation and understanding of this to navigate the advances of today. Having the ability to create one’s own business is key for youth and for developing our future business leaders.”
The CEC speakers discussed economic opportunity and the community, developing an entrepreneurial mindset and the types of businesses that entrepreneurs found, among other topics. The teens also participated in hands-on activities that introduced them to the real world of financing, marketing and sales for start-ups. A field trip to Tastytrade, an online financial media company co-led by CEC board member Kristi Ross, allowed them to see these concepts up close.
Four DePaul alumni were among the volunteers who shared their experiences and knowledge with the teens. Bruce Leech (MBA ’81), executive director of the CEC, was among them.
“When we first heard about the Comer opportunity, we jumped at the chance to expand our community outreach and leverage our entrepreneurship programs at the CEC,” he says. “It was a tremendous experience for our board members and mentors, who were very impressed with the students.
“While our team was there to provide their insights to these students, I know we all received much more in return by appreciating their commitment to this program. I was also very inspired with the purpose-driven business ideas the Comer students developed, like addressing the food desert on the South Side of Chicago by starting a healthy grocery store in the neighborhood.”
The program taught teens valuable skills—brainstorming, decision-making and presenting business ideas—that can be applied to entrepreneurship or any career, Holloway says.
“They enjoyed the opportunity to work on a real-life business and be able to present it as a future opportunity,” she adds. “They also were very enthusiastic and excited about the guest speakers – they appreciated talking with them and the interest speakers took in their ideas.
“Not only do they express that they want to be entrepreneurs,” she adds, “some already are working on businesses of their own.”
The CEC and Comer plan to continue the program at the youth center this academic year.
By Robin Florzak