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Pat Ryan '59, founder and executive chairman of Aon Corp., shares insights from his distinguished career at the James L. Allen Center during the 2007 Kellogg Alumni Entrepreneur Conference.

Ideas and energy define entrepreneurship conference

Kellogg alumni entrepreneurs return to campus, sharing their insights, experience and success with school’s community

By Aubrey Henretty

5/31/2007 -

Entrepreneurs: Don’t be in such a rush.

That was one of the insights offered to attendees of the Kellogg Alumni Entrepreneur Conference held May 30 at the James L. Allen Center in Evanston.

Entrepreneurship will bloom in its own good time, suggested Professor Steven Rogers, a Kellogg School expert in the subject. In fact, said the director of the Larry and Carol Levy Institute for Entrepreneurial Practice, sometimes it’s best if people are patient before leaping into such a career.

“We are not trying to persuade our alums to become entrepreneurs immediately after graduation,” said Rogers, the Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship. “Our advice is: Go learn on someone else’s dime.”

Pat Ryan ’59, founder and executive chairman of Aon Corp., agreed. “If you want to be an entrepreneur right out of business school,” he said, “you’re making a mistake.”

Rogers introduced Ryan’s keynote address at the daylong conference, whose theme focused on financing ventures. The event’s larger purpose was to celebrate the success of alumni entrepreneurs while providing a forum for them to continue their education and share their insights with the Kellogg community. Ryan’s remarks focused on strategies gleaned from his decades of entrepreneurial experience. Whatever else one learns in the early years out of business school, he said, successful entrepreneurs learn to emphasize teamwork, integrity and customer service above all else: “It’s just like a sport. You learn the fundamentals of a sport and then you deviate a little bit.”

A member of Northwestern University’s board of trustees, Ryan is also the chief executive officer of the Chicago 2016 Olympic Evaluation Committee. “We were third in most people’s minds,” said Ryan of the competition with New York City and Los Angeles to become the United States’ sole national finalist. “L.A. is still in shock,” he quipped, adding, “I believe we’re going to win. Why? Because we have a better city, a better team, and we’ve also got a plan … we have a community of people who want this to happen. And that’s what this is all about.”

Upon concluding his address, Ryan was awarded the Kellogg Alumni Master Entrepreneur of the Year Award by the Levy Center’s associate director, Scott Whitaker. Also recognized for their outstanding contributions to the field were Cheryl Mayberry McKissack ’89, who received the Kellogg Alumni Rising Entrepreneur of the Year Award; David Weinstein ’00, who received the Kellogg Alumni Entrepreneur Supporter of the Year Award; and John Wood ’89, who earned the Kellogg Alumni Social Entrepreneur Award. McKissack is the founder, chairman, and CEO of Chicago-based Nia Enterprises LLC, which provides opt-in, permission-based marketing services. Weinstein, recently appointed by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to the Chicago Plan Commission, is the founding president of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center. Wood is founder and CEO of Room to Read, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that builds libraries and schools for poor children throughout Asia.

Following a trip to “The Marketplace” — a unique opportunity for Kellogg alumni entrepreneurs to share their success with fellow conference attendees — participants in a panel moderated by Kellogg Adjunct Associate Professor Greg White discussed strategies for obtaining investment dollars (and partnerships) with private equity firms. “Raising equity capital for an entrepreneur is similar to a marriage,” said panelist Carr Preston, co-founder and managing director of Reliant Equity Investors. He emphasized “really focusing on the personal and relational side [of business deals], really understanding the partners you’re considering.”

Fellow panelist Jonathan Weatherly ’97, chief executive officer of Your Choice Living Inc., reminded attendees not to neglect the bottom line: “I would never approach a private equity firm without 20 to 30 percent of my target already achieved,” said Weatherly, adding that entrepreneurs seeking early-stage funds may find themselves caught in a Catch-22, i.e. they may need funding to achieve the results required to make them eligible for funding. His fundraising advice: “Start several months earlier than you need it.”

Under the direction of moderator and Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship Barry Merkin, another panel addressed the challenges of assembling and courting a different set of investors — the sometimes fickle, independently wealthy set known as “angel investors.”

Panelist Amy Hillard, founder and CEO of The ComfortCake Company, noted that “angels” sometimes crop up in unexpected places. “They can be people who can write you a check or people who can introduce you to people who can write you a check,” she said.

While it’s important for an entrepreneur to consider all possible sources, panelist and award-winner Weinstein said it is critical to learn quickly who one’s investors are not. “Get a fast ‘No’ when you can,” he said. “A fast ‘No’ in business is just as good as a ‘Yes.’” Weinstein also advised entrepreneurs to conduct their own investigations of their prospective investors during the due diligence process to narrow the information gap.

The day’s second keynote speaker, Venita Fields ’88, a senior managing director at private equity firm Smith Whiley & Co., said it is in a firm’s best interest to interview an entrepreneur’s former employers, co-workers and anyone else who can provide insight into the entrepreneur’s character and ability. “If we could find your third-grade teacher, we’d interview her, too,” said Fields.

Fields, who is also a member of boards of directors for the Levy Institute, the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Chicago Finance Exchange, gave conference attendees a crash course in presenting business plans to prospective investors. “Sometimes entrepreneurs aren’t very good at articulating a compelling case,” she said, going on to offer such important tips as, “Make it concise and understandable,” and, “Don’t hide financials at the back of the book. Buried financials are a red flag for me.”

For entrepreneurs on the cusp — those who’ve enjoyed modest success and are poised to tap into the vast resources private equity has to offer — Fields noted that the arrangement is not for everyone. “You must ask yourself whether you’d rather have 30 to 40 percent of a successful, scalable company or 100 percent of a more fragile enterprise,” she said.

The Kellogg graduate’s keynote was followed by a networking lunch and a full afternoon of events, including a panel discussion on initial public offerings moderated by Kellogg Adjunct Associate Professor of Business Law Craig Bradley and an interactive case study presented by William Sutter Jr., an adjunct professor of finance at the Kellogg School.