The Union of Town and Gown

DePaul University and Chicago

DePaul University and Chicago
City population:
DePaul student population: 24,352
University employees: 5,000
Metro area small businesses: 192,119
Nearest major airports: O'Hare International (15 miles); Midway International (14 miles)

Chicago small business hopefuls aren't at a loss for advice, with six resident world-class institutions offering entrepreneurship programs. But DePaul's Coleman Center prides itself on being the most accessible. "I can't tell you how many business owners overlook universities," says Raman Chadha, director of the Coleman Center, which aims to make business owners smarter operators and help them refine their plans. It offers a popular slate of fee-for-service options, including round tables where owners in various stages of development help one another work through problems. Coleman's specialized seminars have been hits too, covering unusual topics like prepping a business to pass it on to heirs and creating an advisory board. "DePaul has very strong community orientation, and service is our mission," Chadha says. "The Coleman Center fits right into the university's sweet spot."

Peer Power
After getting his MBA and starting staffing company Illuma in 2004, Adam Robinson turned to the Coleman Center when he found himself in a bind. Now he sits on the center's advisory board.

What problems were you having?
In the beginning things were humming. In Year One, we did $1.1 million, and by Year Three, it was $3.8 million. But as a first-time business owner, I was not exactly sure what I was doing. Everyone wings the operational aspects unless they've done it before. Cash flow was an issue.

What did Coleman do for you?
They put eight business owners in a room for a facilitated conversation. I could learn more in one meeting than in four years of formal learning. Access to peers and academics kept me from rookie mistakes, which is huge. It cut my failure rate and increased my growth rate.

And what about the cash flow?
In my previous model, I'd provide service for 30 days, invoice, then collect 60 to 90 days later, which often left me short. To solve that problem, we charged less but were paid before the work. There was substantially greater positive cash flow. That peer learning gave me confidence that I wasn't crazy in asking customers to pay 100 percent in advance.

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Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.

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This article was originally published in the October 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Union of Town and Gown.

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