Experienced Entrepreneurs Jump-Start Illinois Tech Student Startups

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Starting a farm in Chicago—not in the suburbs or even on the outer reaches of the city limits, but in the heart of its neighborhoods—may not make a lot of sense on first glance due to the effort and cost it takes to regenerate the land on which they are located.

When you listen to Ashley-Marie Sutherland describe the idea to start a series of micro farms in Chicago, though, it’s easier to see its potential to be a viable business. It offers a much-needed service to urban communities.

“The need is in areas that have vacant lots, blocks that are medium to large size, about half an acre to two acres,” says Sutherland, a second-year law student at Chicago-Kent College of Law. “Normally you would not put a farm there, but we’re going to put little farms there, with the idea being able to feed this set of people within a certain radius.”

Turning an inventive idea like Sutherland’s micro farms into a full-fledged business is no easy task. The Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship aims to help Illinois Institute of Technology students put their business concepts within reach with a new experiential entrepreneurship program.

The Kaplan Institute’s Membership Program launched on January 25, and it is taking 23 student teams through a six-month business accelerator. In it, student-driven teams are paired with faculty and industry experts who help lead them through eight learning modules and, ultimately, prepare qualified teams to pitch their solutions to investors. A key component of the program is to match the student teams with experienced mentors who have commercialized a product in the same market as the students’ startup. 

“I’m trying to leverage my experience in starting companies to make it a little more real for these entrepreneurs and to give them some real-world anecdotes about what we’ve seen and what’s worked in the past,” says Corbett Kull (M.B.A. ’98), the co-founder and chief executive officer of Tillable, a company that connects farmers with land, and a mentor for Sutherland.

Kull, who has started four companies, adds, “It’s never easy. Maybe the biggest role we play is trying to be a cheerleader as they try to grind their way to success.”

At the end of the university’s spring 2021 semester, up to seven of the student teams participating in the program will be selected to take part in Pitch@IllinoisTech for a chance to win up to $30,000 in prize money. A student-run business plan competition, Pitch@IllinoisTech features professionals from venture capital firms, corporate partners, and members of Illinois Tech’s Board of Trustees as judges. It serves as just one benchmark of success for those participating in the program.

“I really was interested in receiving access to mentorship and being involved with the Illinois Tech community,” says Omar Hernandez, a third-year graduate student studying data management and analytics. “It has a long history of innovative ideas and a long history of entrepreneurs, so I wanted to potentially connect with other like-minded people.”

Like Sutherland, Hernandez was picked to take part in the first cohort of the Membership Program. His business idea, PRSPCTVS, aims to create software for independent restaurants and small retail businesses that would help them understand their sales and expenses on one platform.

Hernandez has already begun to see exactly how the Membership Program can help him turn a cutting-edge idea that impressed judges during Kaplan Institute’s Innovation Day in December 2020, where it was selected as a winner, into a full-fledged business. His mentors include Illinois Tech Senior Instructor of Computer Science Michael Lee; Fady Hawatmeh, the chief executive officer of the artificial-intelligence software startup Clockwork; and Matthew Doubleday, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Wintrust Financial Corporation.

“The conversations that I’ve had so far have been great,” Hernandez says of his experience working with his mentors. “I’ve gotten a lot of insights from the people I’ve spoken with, and they provided so much feedback for us to go back and tweak our business models to determine whether or not we’re on the right path.”

Mentors meet with the student-led teams for one hour each week. Lee says the idea is, as mentors, not to do any work for the teams, but to apply their backgrounds as entrepreneurs and experts in their particular fields to provide guidance.

“We’re trying to lend some credence to their idea, their direction, and are also serving as a point of contact for other professionals,” says Lee, whose background is in software engineering. “Most of the value I can provide is being around to chat with these students. Even what we’ve accomplished this far, it has been enriching for both sides.”

The experience has already been beneficial for Sutherland, who has had conversations with Kull and Illinois Tech Adjunct Professor of Industrial Technology and Management Blake Davis. Davis led an IPRO team in developing a vertical farm for The Plant, a zero-waste food production and educational facility that featured a garden that used a hydroponic system, which Sutherland’s business, HEIRS farm, plans to use.

By working with their mentors and honing in on the details of starting a business, students who participate in the Membership Program are not just learning how to successfully jump-start an idea—they’re working toward creating a business that lives up to the mission that Illinois Tech was founded on, to “meet the needs of the age.” Both Sutherland, through a micro farm concept that turns vacant lots into farms that produce food for those living there, and Hernandez, whose platform can help small independent businesses have access to money management software they otherwise would not have, aim to start businesses that could have a significant impact in communities that need it most.

It’s why Sutherland says that the Membership Program, as well as the Kaplan Institute’s role as an entity that is “hands on and very eager and ready to answer” questions, has given her the hope that her aspirations are within reach.

“We’re hoping to be in a really good space to either buy or lease land so that we can get our first site up and running by the end of 2021,” says Sutherland, who had been working on the idea with her husband, Gyasi Sutherland, before applying for the Membership Program. “The program would help us get the remaining of our business concepts together, like making sure that it actually makes sense and that things are marketable. We just need to see how it can make money and how to form our entities…so that we’re ready to start the project full on.”