Entrepreneurial Outings: Chicago

Author: Notre Dame ESTEEM

John Vernon is a current student in our Masters of Entrepreneurship program and a member of the Student Development Team.  In this article he reflects upon the awesome opportunity the students had to go to entrepreneurial hubs in Chicago in January.

One of the many exciting aspects of the ESTEEM program is its extracurricular experiences.  Every year right after Christmas Break a day trip into Chicago is planned to kick off our last semester. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to visit several of the amazing companies that are just a short drive away. The focus of this “field trip” is to find out about businesses and companies that are truly making an impact in through their work and making a real difference to the community.  On a chilly and snowy January morning the cohort boarded a bus to explore the startup and entrepreneurship scene of Chicago.

Gravity Tank

We got on the bus at 6:30am at Innovation Park (IP), and some of the students were still not quite awake, or maybe just resting up for the full day ahead. They woke up as we arrived at our first stop, Gravity Tank. The company representatives greeted us with a full breakfast served in their innovation and design thinking space, and this definitely was a welcomed treat that energized our group. After a quick introduction from Chris Conley, founder of Gravity Tank, we went on a tour of the building. We noticed there were all kinds of resources for prototyping and design. In addition to 3D printers and a workshop, they also had a full kitchen for food prototyping and design. One designer recalled being shocked by the odd contents of the refrigerator on her first day of work at Gravity Tank!  The visit ended on a high note with Chris discussing his 6 Core Features for design and building great products.  

Students are greeted by one of the Vice Presidents at Google's Chicago headquarters


Next stop was Google to meet with Jim Lecinski, VP of customer solutions. A Google veteran, Jim has been with the company for 9 years. He taught us about leveraging our technology to provide solutions in product marketing. He focused on the digital trends that are on the way to market, and how we can be prepared to tackle them head on. He talked about the “Zero Moment of Truth” and how information plays into buying decisions. The day would not have been complete without a demonstration of some devices like a Smart Watch, Google Glass, and the Google Cardboard.  After an amazing lunch, we explored the different floors and had the chance to observe the employees. We visited the engineering floors and saw all of the coders busily doing their thing. The workers had fun things around the space to keep them occupied like foosball and ping pong tables, and enough game systems for everyone to enjoy during quick breaks. They also had a nap room to relax and re-energize after an extended project push or all-nighter.  


Our trip continued on to visit IDEO Chicago. Many of our students were familiar with IDEO after hearing from its founder Dennis Boyle last semester. Steve Schwall gave a brief presentation on IDEO, and the design projects he has worked on for the company. Steve is a Notre Dame graduate in engineering and industrial design. He discussed his design process, and how it fits in with the mission and theme of IDEO. His explained that his current projects are in the automotive industry. Steve also discussed IDEO.org, which is like the non-profit division of IDEO. The design work that goes on is mostly for social causes, and employees can take a rotation working for this segment of the company. We finished with a tour, and realized that pets were definitely allowed and even encouraged. Who wouldn’t want to bring their puppy to work! 

Students eat lunch at Google


Our last stop of the day was at Matter and 1871. Matter is a new non-profit working to establish itself as a new incubator for healthcare and biotech startups. They are located just down the hall from 1871, which is a major technology startup incubator. David Schonthal, one of the co-founders of Matter gave us a presentation of their new model and collaboration efforts between research institutions all around Chicago. Startups have already signed up, and they will open their doors in just a couple of months. We took a quick break and explored the space of 1871. Rows and rows of teams coding their new applications and products were all around us. Elaborate art was used to decorate the walls of the space, which had a hip industrial decor. The last event of the day was a presentation from 1871 CEO Howard Tullman. He demonstrated how 1871 has become a premier incubator with over 350 companies and 1200 entrepreneurs. In 2014 companies received over 3 billion dollars in exit funds, and over 23 million of revenue! He then concluded his presentation with a message on the importance of hard work and grit in entrepreneurship. The “take away” here was that the road is not an easy one, but if you can stay strong and persevere the benefits are very rewarding.  

Students receive a presentation at IDEO

Overall, we were really impressed with all of the businesses and companies we visited. It is a strong testament to the Notre Dame network, and the opportunity this program creates for its students. Our hosts were very welcoming to us, and they generously shared truly valuable lessons along the way. It was a great way to start the semester and all of the students were energized and excited to their classes the next day.