When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, many business owners in Evanston found themselves at a crossroads. Bill Pollack, a band leader who sources musicians for various events, saw his opportunities dwindling. How was he supposed to continue working with corporations to create meaningful events when live music seemed to have become a thing of the past overnight?
For Pollack and many other Evanstonians, the Kellogg community sprang into action. With shelter-in-place orders in effect, students and alumni alike found themselves shut in their houses, looking for ways to help — in other words, to put their entrepreneurial expertise to use.
In true Kellogg spirit, the enormous challenge provided the inspiration for an unprecedented example of leading with empathy: the Kellogg Small Business Advisory Initiative. Now, what began as a platform to connect Kellogg students, alumni, and professors with Evanston small business owners in virtual consultations and office hours, is transforming. Rapidly.
“This is the interesting story that's evolved,” says Linda Darragh, a professor of entrepreneurial practice and the executive director of Kellogg’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative. “Other parts of Northwestern are getting involved — a student and faculty member from IMC did a webinar for local businesses through the city of Evanston. Skokie now is going to work with us. I got a call from the Wilmette business librarian yesterday, who’s organizing a talk with local businesses.”
Yes, even in the midst of social distancing, the Kellogg family is leaning into the power of connection, bringing the school’s mission to educate, equip and inspire to Evanston and beyond.
Founded by Darragh and Timothy Feddersen, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, the initiative has proven to be mutually beneficial to alumni and students and local business owners.
“A lot of people didn't have the tools or knowledge, or really understand how to go virtual and how to market,” says Darragh. “The fact is you can't keep doing what you did before. What's nice about our students and our alumni is they come from all different industries, all different experiences. This ability for them to talk with local businesses about what they do, how they do it, and brainstorm new ideas is a real gift.”
Darragh’s own guidance and direction is invaluable. She has long been synonymous with entrepreneurship at Kellogg, and the Small Business Advisory Initiative is just the latest project in a career committed to serving Chicago-area businesses.
Forty years ago, Darragh came to Chicago from Canada to serve the Windy City’s economic development mission as staff assistant to the mayor for the city’s first high tech task force. After working with the Women’s Business Development Center and Venture Forum, Darragh arrived at Kellogg, where she quickly brought her experience to bear on the robust entrepreneurship curriculum. (More than 75% of Kellogg students take at least one entrepreneurship class.) Here, Darragh blends her experience in tech and small business to cook up innovative, integrative classes that are ripe with opportunities.
“That's a critical thing to do in our entrepreneurship program at Kellogg,” says Darragh, “to expose students to this breadth of opportunities in industries. Many students come in with a narrow view of where they could play in entrepreneurship, and it's really much larger.”
Today, more than 30 current Kellogg students and some 25 alumni are on StartupTree, the platform that hosts the initiative. There, they can connect with nearly 80 local business owners. Hair salon owners, laboratory equipment providers, reiki practitioners, weddings singers, and restauranteurs have partnered with the Kellogg community to develop digital strategies, pivot their business models, and gain knowledge about cutting-edge technology and tools.
Those partnerships are only proliferating. With recent interest from retirement community-innovator Mather Home, Darragh sees “other angles of collaboration that are going larger.”
Larger means breaking down some of the crown-and-gown divisions that have historically fractured the Northwestern community from Evanston, but it also means enlarging the reach of the classroom. This quarter, for instance, Professor Craig Wortmann’s entrepreneurial sales class is working with three local businesses that have signed up for the platform that jumped at the opportunity to work with Kellogg students in real-time. “They reached out, immediately,” said Darragh, "and said, ‘I need this help — I need to know how to sell now.’”
Responding to the present moment — the now — offers an unexpected silver lining in this time of change and chaos: innovation.
As Darragh puts it, “Innovation is the ability to understand how the world is changing. Understanding how consumer demand and preferences are changing. An ability to test new ways of doing things with the customer to figure out how to best serve that customer as their preferences are changing. It's not innovating out of a blank box: you’re listening to the customers and the environment and the external forces that are around you.”
While the external forces that shape this moment may be unpredictable, they’ve inspired Kellogg’s students, alumni, and faculty to work toward supporting their local communities and fostering innovation. For entrepreneurs at all stages in their career, this is a time to take stock of their goals and their impact. The initiative hopes to reach even more local businesses to facilitate that sort of reflection.
“That's the critical part that we're working with,” says Darragh. “This is not a time to just keep running on the same treadmill. It’s a time to reach out and reevaluate and position yourself for growth in the future.”
That's where Pollack, the band leader who worked with Darragh's and Fedderson's army of volunteers, has his eyes set. Rather than waiting out the pandemic, he paid attention to his consumers' behavior and pivoted to provide virtual entertainment. Now he plans to incorporate this element in his work even after the pandemic ends.
"We believe there will be an ongoing virtual component to many events for a long time," he writes. "Unless you have a crystal ball to share, I believe most are still working it out one event at a time, based on health guidelines, community attitudes, risk aversion, company fiscal outcomes and politics."