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William White and Liridon Rrushaj

 

 

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One of the most successful NUcorp businesses has been Chicago Unzipped, a guide to Chicago written and produced entirely by Northwestern students.

Fostering entrepreneurship at McCormick

NUcorp provides student with real business experience

As a sophomore, Liridon Rrushaj (industrial engineering and economics ’08) boasts a pretty impressive résumé. After all, how many students can list CEO as work experience?

Rrushaj is the CEO of NUcorp, Northwestern’s new collection of student-run enterprises. The organization takes entrepreneurship beyond the classroom and into the real world. “I’ve always been interested in learning the process of starting a business,” he says. “It’s not a skill you can learn by reading a textbook — you have to experience it.”

William White, former CEO of Bell & Howell and professor of industrial engineering and management science, has found that McCormick is full of students with an interest in entrepreneurship. Six years ago, White and his colleagues developed a new entrepreneurship course for McCormick in response to student requests. The course was a success, and Engineering Entrepreneurship has been offered ever since. But White found that students wanted even more.

“They said that it would be nice to be able to practice some of these things while they were still in school,” White says. “I had a friend who was an entrepreneur who came to speak to the class, and I found out that he had been working with students at Columbia who had been running their own businesses.”

Intrigued by the idea, White applied for a grant from the Walter P. Murphy Society — McCormick’s donor group, which funds a variety of academic projects each year — to see whether this would be a good fit for McCormick. Response from a student survey was positive, leading White to apply for additional Murphy Society funding to get NUcorp — originally known as the Center for Undergraduate Entrepreneurship — off the ground.

Before Rrushaj took over as CEO, White worked with Majid Bourejerdi (materials science and engineering ’04), NUcorp’s first CEO. Using the Murphy Society grant as working capital, NUcorp recruited student leaders to head several student-run businesses, ranging from an advertising agency to a tutoring business. Bourejerdi helped the president of each company get organized, and now serves on the organization’s advisory board. Before graduating he worked with White to identify Rrushaj as NUcorp’s new leader.

In addition to continuing its highly successful initial businesses, NUcorp evaluates new proposals and has established several criteria to evaluate in business plans, Rrushaj explains. “We want a business that students can run and that will be profitable. The business has to provide the opportunity to manage, to gain experience, and to get insight into entrepreneurship.”

One of Rrushaj’s major responsibilities as CEO is to work with the NUcorp advisory board, composed of business executives, faculty members, students, and alumni from McCormick and the J. L. Kellogg School of Management, and members of the Univer­sity administration. The board is chaired by Jeff Coney, director of the Illinois Technology Enterprise Center (ITEC)-Evanston, which also provides guidance, recommendations, and meeting space for NUcorp activities. The partnership has proved to be very beneficial for the students.

“ITEC lives in this area of entrepreneurship and start-ups, and they want to link with undergraduates,” White says. “The staff at ITEC has been great with showing the students some of the shortcuts but making sure that they dot their i’s and cross their t’s.”

For Rrushaj, those details have been the biggest challenge. “There are many uncertainties with entrepreneurship, and there’s a lot of work that goes into the essential details before launching,” he says. “So much preparation has to be done before you can get an idea out into the marketplace.”

With its original businesses proven successes, NUcorp can now utilize Murphy Society grants to become completely self-sufficient. As the companies continue to grow, profits are redirected back into NUcorp as working capital for other business opportunities. But the real success of the project isn’t measured financially but rather in terms of the experience it provides its participants.

“Just because you have a novel idea does not ensure your success,” Rrushaj says. “There’s a lot that goes into starting a business. Sometimes the details that would-be entrepreneurs overlook ultimately lead to their failure. I look forward to utilizing the knowledge gained from my experiential learning with NUcorp in the future.”

A case study for success

One of the most successful NUcorp businesses has been Chicago Unzipped, a guide to Chicago written and produced entirely by Northwestern students. Readers travel through Chicago neighborhood by neighborhood, from Evanston to the Loop, via short profiles of trendy restaurants, shops, and attractions.

The first edition of Chicago Unzipped was led by Ben Levy (materials science and engineering ’05). After taking the Engineering Entrepreneurship course, Levy applied for NUcorp and was hired as the president of the guidebook. He assembled a core team of seven students to research the book and develop business strategies. That group also came up with the title. “We liked it because it was short, sweet, and catchy, but it talks about uncovering Chicago and revealing it to readers,” Levy explains.

To write and design the book, the group enlisted a team of more than 30. Many of the writers were students in the Medill School of Journalism, enticed by the opportunity to add published writing to their portfolios.

One of the biggest challenges facing Chicago Unzipped was securing sales before the book was completed. “I spent a lot of hours on the phone and on e-mail trying to get the book sold, even though we didn’t yet have a product,” Levy says.

Levy’s hard work paid off when Chicago Unzipped landed its first big sale — months before the book was actually published in fall 2005; Loyola University agreed to buy 2,000 copies for its incoming freshman class. “I gave them a five-page example, and they agreed to sign a contract for the books,” Levy explains. “Without that kind of guarantee, I don’t know if we would have had the same product that we ended up with. It gave us hope.”

To date, the book has sold more than 5,000 copies and is in its second printing, wildly exceeding Levy’s expectations. “In the beginning, my idea of success was selling one book,” he explains. “If we could finish one book on time and to our standards, then I knew we would be able to turn a profit in the future. We could have lost money in the first year, but instead we were able to create a great product that sold enough to turn a profit.”

A new team of Northwestern students is working on the second edition of Chicago Unzipped, building on the lessons learned during the first edition. Chicago Unzipped is available at the Norris bookstore and on Amazon.com.