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Crate and Barrel Co-founder Carole Browe Segal Discusses 'Serial Entrepreneurship'

Carole Segal speaks at Northwestern

When Carole Browe Segal and her husband opened their first housewares shop in an old elevator factory in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, she had no idea she’d just begun a lifelong career in entrepreneurship.

They’d had a hard time getting people to believe in them. It was 1962; Carole Segal had recently graduated from Northwestern, at a time when many female students set their sights not on a BA or an MS, but on “their M-R-S,” Segal said. She and her husband Gordon, who had graduated from the Kellogg School of Management, had started furnishing their new home, but they quickly realized their taste was incompatible with their budget.

They didn’t have much experience or money, but one night while washing dishes, they found their idea. “It started going around in our minds that there would be other young people like ourselves with more taste than money,” Segal said. “So we decided to start a business.”

That idea turned into Crate and Barrel, a leader in the furniture and housewares retail sector. Fifty years after its founding, the Northbrook-based company boasts more than 7,000 employees at 100 locations across North America and in Dubai.

Segal spoke Wednesday to a standing-room-only crowd of students in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center. Her talk, “The Life of a Serial Entrepreneur,” was hosted by McCormick’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.

Segal discussed her career: that first cash-strapped housewares shop, where she created frugal displays from her products’ shipping packages (hence the name "Crate and Barrel"); her founding of Foodstuffs, a gourmet food and catering company, in 1979, a time when working women were increasingly seeking wholesome food choices for their families; and her recent work as a so-called “venture philanthropist” as chairperson of the Rush University Medical Center Board of Overseers.

Throughout her career, Segal used entrepreneurship as a tool not just for business, but to solve problems in government, health, and food. In the late 1990s, when the problem was welfare reform, Segal was called in to set up “one-stop” career centers to make the process easier for people to maneuver. At Rush, she initiated a program that provides seed money and mentorship to promising early-career researchers. Now, as public concern over food safety grows, Segal has turned her attention to organic cattle ranching. 

The key to each of these ventures was filling a need, Segal noted. She urged the students to be aware of their surroundings, listen for themes in everyday life, and constantly consider how new ideas could make people’s lives better and easier.

“Why do I say I’m a serial entrepreneur? I’m always looking for ideas, and I always like to invest in the next generation,” Segal said. “And I’ve always been one to find a need and fill it.”

The advice resonated with McCormick students, who posed questions during a Q&A session as well as privately after the event.

Segal has played an active role with Northwestern since graduating in 1960. In 2007 the Segal Design Institute was named in recognition of Carole and Gordon Segal after they made a significant contribution to the school.