PRSUIT interviews Scott Issen, CEO of Chicago based entrepreneurial mentorship program, Future Founders.
Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Scott Issen, President & CEO of the Future Founders Foundation, a non-profit that “inspires youth in Chicagoland to explore and practice entrepreneurship.” Scott shared his journey building Future Founders and also imparted some practical wisdom for any aspiring entrepreneurs out there!
How did Future Founders come about?
I used to work at an organization called the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (CEC), the focus of which was to help high growth potential entrepreneurs grow their businesses. This was back in the early 2000’s before entrepreneurship was as mainstream as it is today. We essentially helped entrepreneurs raise capital, find new clients, and we also provided mentoring, all for no charge.
So as we helped these businesses– and they could be anything from tech companies to consumer products to IT to fashion– we found that they were looking for a way to give back to the community.
Around 2005, Motorola, which is headquartered here in the Chicagoland area, approached us and said, “We love what you’re doing at the CEC and we want to invest in you, but we want to focus on the next generation of entrepreneurs.
And so, I had this opportunity to start a program to help motivated high school students in underserved areas discover entrepreneurship. What we saw was that students, specifically in minority communities, didn’t have access to entrepreneurs. They didn’t know what it would take to actually be one, they’d never met one, and a high proportion of them actually wanted to run businesses. So there was an opportunity for us to take these high growth entrepreneurs who were creating revolutionary businesses and bring them to these students’ classrooms. We started with 75 students at 3 schools, and we grew that to 200 students at 5 schools by the end of the 2010/2011 school year.
By that point, the market had changed a little bit. Entrepreneurship was embraced more by the broader community. We had some big Chicago success stories that were coming around that time with Groupon and Grubhub. It became clear that the best way to serve aspiring entrepreneurs and to grow the program was to spin it out.
I never wanted to be an entrepreneur, I never wanted to run a non-profit, but to have an opportunity to take something I started and to turn it into something sustainable was valuable and exciting.
Around that same time in mid-2011, Brad Keywell (co-founder of Groupon, Lightbank and Uptake) had approached us. Brad created a program, which we now call Future Founders Connect, with the goal of helping 8th through 10th graders discover entrepreneurship and build career skills. He said that he wanted to do more with his program and we said we wanted to do more with ours, so we decided to work together.
In the fall of 2011, we formed the Future Founders Foundation to continue and grow entrepreneurial exposure programs for low income youth in Chicago. At that time, we served 550 students at 9 schools, and now, with the help of our 300+ volunteers, we serve over 7000 students at 50 schools.
What is your end goal for a student who becomes involved in a Future Founders program?
For students in elementary school through high school, we hope they have an opportunity to see entrepreneurship as a viable career. I mean, so often you probably meet professionals in finance or law or medicine and you say “Oh I could be a doctor, a lawyer, an architect, or what not.” But starting a business is not necessarily always at the top of people’s lists. So we just want to show students that you actually can do it for yourself. Success for us is not so much that these students are starting businesses but that they’re building that entrepreneurial mindset. I think it’s also valuable to just give them an opportunity to work with mentors and receive feedback. Being able to take and interpret feedback is a skill. It’s interesting, a lot of people don’t have mentors or some type of coach that’s actually helping them along with things.
We’ve had super shy students who won’t even stand up in front of the class and give their twenty second elevator pitch to fast forward to the end of the year, they’re presenting a full 10 minute business plan in front of 350 people including classmates, business executives, entrepreneurs, etc. So that’s also success.
For the college program, we bring together students from a wide variety of places– high school graduates of our own program, undergrads, recent grads, grad students– and we give them a chance to connect with other likeminded people. What we want to do is create opportunities for these students to form relationships, build a strong network, and understand what resources exist in the community. We’re trying to curate experiences that we think are relevant. So success there is awareness of the community, it’s building skills.
For students who know 100% they want to be entrepreneurs, we offer a year-long Founders Fellowship program. A couple of Fellows have already been on Shark Tank and gotten investments for their first companies. What we’re trying to do is pair them with mentors and give them the chance to get that individualized attention that they need to grow their companies, build a relationship with each other, have a community, and work on relevant skills. We aren’t so much teaching them how to run businesses but rather thinking about things like “How would you pitch to an investor?”,”How would you tell your personal professional story?” or “How do you work as a team?”
What qualities does an entrepreneur’s pitch need to be an effective one?
At the end of the day, the most important thing is passion. So we teach and encourage them to share that passion and make sure other people get as excited about what they’re selling because you as the entrepreneur are going to be your best salesperson and your best champion and advocate. If you’re not excited about what you’re going to do, others aren’t going to be either.
Entrepreneurship is also about execution. You and I can both have the same idea but it’s whomever can execute it faster and better that’s going to be successful.
Aside from that, some other key tips in terms of those successful pitches, is really identifying a critical problem in the market. If you’re just creating something for the sake of creating it, it doesn’t resonate as much as if you’ve identified some type of meaningful problem that exists that a lot of people are affected by.
And then it’s just some of those other factors. How are you going to actually make money in your business? Have you identified who your target customers are? Do you actually have to iterate and scale what you’re doing? You don’t want to necessarily be a one trick pony. So how do you take whatever it is, and what does version 2.0 look like? What does version 3.0 look like? And has your business model been proven? Obviously, revenue is the best form of capital. If you can actually sell your product or you’ve garnered some success from key clients like big companies or notable companies. That makes other people feel like you’re a more legitimate business.
Do you have any plans for expansion to other cities? What kind of growth do you see in the future?
So the big question. There’s a lot of growth potential with our K-12 programs. Right now, we serve nearly 7,000 students for that population but there are 400,000 students from low income communities in Chicago who are in the public school system so there’s a lot of room for growth there. I will give a little tease that with our collegiate level program, we are looking for ways to expand it past Illinois, and I think within the next 12-24 months, we’re going to be working towards that. We want to make sure that we have a solid product before we start going to scale. But given that a lot of college students have access to technology, they don’t always necessarily need to be in person with the mentors. We’re going to be leveraging technology in trying to bring students together in a new way to help them grow their companies.
What have been some of your biggest lessons learned during your time leading Future Founders?
Oh there’s so many. I’m learning every day. I’ve learned that we have to keep staying relevant to our constituents. What helped prepare students to be entrepreneurs, to build that entrepreneurial mindset ten years ago is not the same as what they’re going to need today. It’s not the same as what they’re going to need ten years from now. I mean when we started out, there were no apps. No one thought about creating an app on a smartphone. Smartphones didn’t really exist yet so just seeing how technology has changed and how that’s really influencing businesses. I think we’re just always on the lookout for how do we take these same concepts and make sure that the students are learning the most cutting edge technologies.
I’ve learned that engaging people, especially entrepreneurs, can be challenging. I mean when you’re trying to get entrepreneurs into classrooms, it’s difficult because they’re busy running their own businesses. Making sure that these entrepreneurs continue to see the relevance of what Future Founders is doing and how their time can actually positively affect a student and help them move forward and achieve milestones is key.
Knowing what you’re good at and knowing what’s not part of your wheelhouse is important. Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people who can help you in areas that you don’t excel at. At the end of the day, you have a limited amount of resources so you need to maximize the value of what you specifically do.