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The Kellogg Entrepreneur Organization visited the headquarters of Groupon to discuss best practices with executives at the Chicago-based startup.

The Kellogg Entrepreneur Organization visited the headquarters of Groupon to discuss best practices with executives at the Chicago-based startup.

An innovative spirit

For Part-Time students juggling school and startups, it’s all about learning from each other — and from Chicago’s best entrepreneurs

By Amy Trang

10/1/2010 - There’s a palpable energy at a successful startup — a buzz in the air, a sense of great things to come.

Students in the Kellogg Entrepreneur Organization know what that energy is like — and they want to generate more of it.

Last spring, a group of KEO members listened intently to executives at Groupon as they detailed the rapid growth of their company. Huddled in the Chicago startup’s bright and airy conference room, the students asked candid questions of Sean Smyth, Groupon’s vice president of business development, and Shawn Bercuson, principal of early-stage technology fund Lightbank.

“There’s an innovative spirit to what we’ve done,” Smyth said of Groupon’s deal-of-the-day strategy. “You have to keep reinventing yourself.”

Those were motivating words to the KEO members, all budding entrepreneurs and students in Kellogg’s Part-Time Program. The KEO group was founded two years ago to enable student entrepreneurs to network and share ideas. The members — who include a flower importer, a dance school owner and a Web magazine publisher — represent a broad variety of industries.

“For an entrepreneur who has been there and seen that, you get valuable learning principles that you don’t see in the classroom,” said Kevin Leland ’10. “There is networking and building relationships. You can learn principles from the classroom, but hearing them straight from the horse’s mouth is really valuable.”

The Groupon field trip was one of the group’s monthly sojourns to local Chicago companies to learn best practices firsthand from successful entrepreneurs. Past sojourns have included visits to Vibes Media, Adam Street Partners and MightyNest.com — firms founded or led by Kellogg graduates. This fall, the KEO plans to visit e-commerce company kosherwine.com and a Papa John’s franchise, both owned by Kellogg students.

To join the group, a member must be a Kellogg Part-Time student and an entrepreneur. With 15 members, the group fosters candid and open dialogue about issues the students are facing in their businesses. The group also builds strong relationships that last well beyond graduation.

“The value from the wisdom and experiences of the KEO members has been as good as, if not better than, any entrepreneurship class can offer,” said KEO President Venketesh Rajendran. “We come out so energized and motivated after every KEO meeting.”

Beyond their weekly meetings and sojourns, group members stay connected online to share practical insights on managing their businesses. Greg Stallkamp ’10, who owns Holosfitness.com, a fitness social networking website, said KEO members pool their knowledge to help each other navigate hurdles such as hiring and compensation issues.

“Everyone has new challenges every month and it’s good to air those in a group atmosphere,” Stallkamp said. “You are able to go back and forth with a group of people who have found success and have certain knowledge, which is very helpful.”