DePaul University has always been ranked among the top entrepreneurship academic programs nationwide, but hasn’t produced as many of the high profile startup success stories seen from other universities in the city.
Now Bruce Leech, the new director of the Coleman Center for Entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship professor Patrick J. Murphy are hoping to change that by focusing on the areas that DePaul students have traditionally been strong–startups that serve international communities, low tech businesses and social enterprise ventures–while connecting student entrepreneurs with incubators, coworking spaces and innovation hubs around the city to combine strong classroom work with experiential learning.
“I always felt we had a great brand name, certainly on the academic side,” said Leech. “But I always felt like the center lined up properly with the academic side could do so much more for students, bringing the experiential side into the classroom.”
Their renewed sense of purpose comes after a time of change for DePaul entrepreneurship. Former Coleman Center director Terri Lonier left DePaul for the School of the Art Institute last fall, and the center was briefly headed up by Billy Banks, who left for The Garage at Northwestern University after just a few months at DePaul. That’s when Leech, an entrepreneur who received his MBA at DePaul and served on the Coleman board for 10 years, decided to step in.
“It’s hard to engage at a deep level working part time,” he said, of his time serving as a board member. Now he says, “it’s a blessing to come back full time.”
This spring, DePaul opened a permanent home for the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center (previously they were housed in the Department of Management) on DePaul’s Loop campus, which includes conference rooms, office space and an events space that can hold up to 95 people. It’s open to any DePaul student, and Murphy and Leech hope to also hope to use the space to bring the community into DePaul, through speakers and workshops, and potentially to host a permanent space for BLUE1647 entrepreneurs. Already, Murphy has plans to bring a coding academy usually hosted at BLUE1647 to the new Coleman Center space.
Leech envisions the entrepreneurship center can encourage entrepreneurial thinking across the university, and serve as a space for students to get access to resources, such as legal, accounting and business development advice. He said he’ll be using his network, built over two decades of running CrossCom National (a voice and data systems company), to connect entrepreneurs and business leaders to students in the classroom.
Beyond DePaul’s campus, the university recently opened a permanent space at 1871. And Murphy and Leech are looking into partnerships and connections at a variety of coworking spaces and incubators around the city, such as ICNC, a west side business development space, and 2112, a music incubator, to serve a variety of student needs.
“If a student comes in here and wants to open a catering business, we’re not going to send them to 1871 or [BLUE1647],” said Leech. “But there’s an incubator out there for that.”
Murphy, who runs the academic entrepreneurship program, said he’s especially focused on increasing opportunities for international students (there are 375 international students currently in DePaul’s graduate business program) and first-generation students leveraging international connections. “They can start businesses in Chicago that have a real connection with China or India to serve those communities here in Chicago,” he said.
Already the space has an international feel: On a recent weekday, DePaul students from China and England (pictured above) were in a conference room working on YOUMU, a startup that helps international students relocate to the US, while a group of visiting Nigerian business leaders met in the main events space. Plus, this fall Murphy and Leech are visiting Guizhou University in Guiyang, China, to look at their maker space and entrepreneurship center, and explore a partnership with the university.
And though Murphy estimates over half of the DePaul students interested in launching a company have some interest in social impact, currently there is only one social enterprise class offered at DePaul–a popular elective, Murphy said. In the future, he hopes to increase social impact resources and training, plus bring in leaders in the social enterprise space, such as BLUE1647 founder Emile Cambry, as adjunct professors.
Our students are really street smart. They know how to fail, they know how to fight.
Both Murphy and Leech said it is key to create an entrepreneurship center that reflects DePaul’s unique DNA.
“Our students are really street smart,” said Murphy. “They know how to fail, they know how to fight.”
“There’s no sense of entitlement,” added Leech. “They roll up their sleeves and get it done.”