Follow the Leader: Alumni CEOs Help Define the Entrepreneurial Mindset

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The Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship at Illinois Institute of Technology is firmly committed to instilling the entrepreneurial mindset into every student, regardless of whether their goal is to become an entrepreneur or to explore another career path. The Kaplan Institute believes that all students will be better positioned for professional success if they know how to apply the skills and perspectives of entrepreneurs. 

To better understand how to best achieve this, the Kaplan Institute has connected with alumni entrepreneurs and other business leaders who are providing their real-world experience and insights to help the Kaplan Institute teach the entrepreneurial mindset to every Illinois Tech student—skills including market focus, practical conviction, and asset magnetism.

In late March the Kaplan Institute hosted a roundtable with a group of Illinois Tech alumni who serve as chief executive officers. The six alumni CEOs who took part in the roundtable were Renewable Energy Group CEO Cynthia (C. J.) Warner (M.B.A. ’88), Barchart founder and CEO Mark Haraburda (M.A. MF ’04), Tillable Founder and CEO Corbett Kull (M.B.A. ’98), Wi-Tronix Founder and CEO Larry Jordan (EE ’89), EZOPS Founder and CEO Bikram Singh (PS ’07), and Illinois Tech Trustee and IA Collaborative Founder and Chief Design Strategy Officer Kathleen Brandenburg (MDes ’98). 

The CEOs were asked what educational experiences or conditions at Illinois Tech spurred them on to either start their own companies or find paths that led to leadership positions.

“I’ve gone from big [companies] to small [companies],” Warner says. “I do owe a lot to the entrepreneurial mindset [developed at Illinois Tech] that gave me the courage to do that.”

While Warner’s bachelor’s degree in engineering was critical to her success as a leader in the energy sector, her Illinois Tech M.B.A. exposed her to finance and other business skills that prepared her to earn executive roles at companies like British Petroleum. “Learning how to size the market and how to quantify and validate the economic value of a solution is a key business skill for any innovator,” says Maryam Saleh, executive director of the Kaplan Institute who plans on incorporating these elements into the curriculum. 

An overriding theme from the discussion was how Illinois Tech gave these alumni CEOs the confidence to explore non-linear career paths through programs like Illinois Tech’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program, which encourages creative problem solving outside a student’s core discipline. 

The group also highlighted the importance of real-world experiences and industry-specific learning opportunities. 

“When I went through the financial markets program in the early 2000s, they had a lot of industry adjunct professors, and full-time as well, that brought a lot of experience from the real world to the classroom,” Haraburda says. “That was a really good thing to hear, the stories from those professors of what they did for a living and how they connected it back to learning in the classroom. That was a strong point for me.” 

The Kaplan Institute connects Illinois Tech students to industry, through IPRO Labs and the entrepreneurship program. IPRO Labs covers five industry verticals, and employees from IPRO Labs’ partner companies not only share a real-world problem at the beginning of the semester, but they also share feedback on the value of the solutions developed in the final projects. 

“By incorporating industry experts in our innovation process, we amplify the impact of our work and increase the likelihood that students work on ideas with market potential,” Saleh says.

In the Kaplan Institute’s entrepreneurship program, entrepreneurs and CEOs like Haraburda and Warner are providing one-to-one coaching to student entrepreneurs. This is an incredible opportunity for students to glean from the practical and expert knowledge of alumni who have launched and led businesses in the sectors students are hoping to penetrate. This spring, as part of the mentorship program at the Kaplan Institute, student entrepreneurs who obtained CEO mentorship went on to build solutions as diverse as an urban farm, a physics experiment simulator for high schools, and a COVID-19 breathalyzer test. Having mentors with sector-specific commercialization knowledge dramatically accelerates business development.    The Kaplan Institute hopes to grow a council of alumni CEOs with sector-specific skills to continue to provide this tailored support to student entrepreneurs.  

“The long-term issue has always been, how do I become an entrepreneur when I actually haven’t been out working before and there are so many things that I don’t know? There’s so much dimension to being successful, and the idea is really just the start,” says Warner. 

By utilizing the knowledge gained from Haraburda, Warner, and the other alumni CEOs, the Kaplan Institute is helping students learn the core components of the entrepreneurial mindset and positioning them for a successful trajectory after graduation.

If you are a member of the Illinois Tech alumni community and would like to partner with the Kaplan Institute to provide mentorship, internships, or other support that helps teach Illinois Tech students the entrepreneurial mindset, please contact us at kiinfo@kaplan.iit.edu.