Talk of the Town

Why don't you stay around? That's the de facto mantra for a new mentoring program at the University of Illinois, which is bringing highly qualified students in Commerce and Engineering together with members of the business community in greater Champaign-Urbana.

During the 1999-2000 academic year, approximately forty students — including around twenty-five from CBA — were paired with approximately fifty mentors from local firms, ranging from a major health insurer to a fast-moving commercial real estate development firm. The hope is that the program will induce top grads to take jobs locally, where opportunities are expanding faster than one can say "Silicon Prairie." With ground already broken, construction underway, and Motorola signed as an anchor tenant, the South Center Research Park, located at the corner of St. Mary's Road and First Street, is perhaps the highest-profile example of how university-fueled growth is rocketing the local economy forward. (Plans for the park ultimately call for development of about 1.4 million square feet of research and related space.) But there are dozens, even hundreds, of other illustrations, from small Internet start-ups to publishing and software firms that have located here because of the high quality of life and access to the tremendous resources of a world-class university.


It's about the good life in C-U. Mentoring program leader Randy Hoffman (seated), with (l-r) Jen Willis, engineering student William Ho, and Mike Lucas.

 Thus, one challenge for the local business community is to show U of I grads the town, and convince them that staying in C/U offers unique advantages over the glamour of New York or the allure of Chicago. The mentoring program has initially targeted MBA students (who may be more drawn by C/U's family friendliness and general livability than ready-for-the-bright-lights CBA seniors) and undergraduates in Engineering. Launched a little over a year ago by business executive Pat Brown (at that time president of IRM insurance brokerage, and now president of Useractive Media, an Internet start-up) the mentoring program has since been taken over by Randy Hoffman, former CEO of PersonalCare, a managed health care company located in Champaign. "We want to take the best and the brightest students and show them that a potential career in Champaign would have a lot to offer," said Hoffman, who has received support from Commerce's offices of Alumni Affairs and Career Services, as well as enthusiastic and sometimes extensive involvement from the students and businessmen themselves. "By mentoring students and making internships available to them, we are trying to impart what simply can't be imparted through a textbook. Of course the program is very new. Right now, we're especially focusing on trying to find the right mix of mentors — those whose range of experience can most benefit the students."

And, already, there are modest but encouraging success stories. One is MBA Class of 2001 member Jen Willis. Willis, who was assigned Hoffman as her mentor when she joined the program in the fall of 1999, is serving a local internship this summer with Fox Development Corporation — a key player in the development of South Center Research Park. "I can't emphasize enough the importance of the internship, in building on the experience and knowledge of the community gained through the mentoring program," Willis told InSight. "If people get to know more about a community and the companies that are in it, they are more likely to stay. In my case, Randy was able to give me the big picture of how a company works, by bringing me together with corporate officers heading up the different divisions at PersonalCare." Willis, who is pursuing a finance emphasis within the MBA program, said she is interested in real estate development and would eventually like to combine her MBA background with her background in gerontology, in which she holds an M.S. from Miami University of Ohio. This fall, she'll be serving as student coordinator for the mentoring program in CBA, along with her classmate Tim Lambert. The two are taking over from Mike Lucas, MBA Class of 2000, who has done a great deal to establish the program and who has himself had two mentors — Greg Lykins, chairman of Bank Illinois, and Peter Fox, founder of Fox Development Corporation. "I got really involved with the local community — including sitting in on meetings recruiting tenants for the technology park, and becoming aware of investment opportunities in technology with the Champaign Venture Fund. The experience offered me a lot of insights," Lucas said.


The hope is that the program will induce top grads to take jobs locally, where opportunities are expanding faster than one can say "Silicon Prairie."

The mentoring program got underway in April of 1999 and has been sustained in part through monthly receptions, with featured guest speakers. "A relationship with a mentor allows the mentee to go from saying `How do I apply what I've learned?' to saying `this is where
it all makes sense,'" noted Lucas, admitting, "It took a lot of time to start it up — a lot of coordination and planning." He noted that one of the big challenges in launching the program was matching the interests of participants. "Those can really vary," he said. "It depends on the individual mentor and mentee."

Also in from the beginning have been Greg Cozad of Cozad Asset Management and Peter Fox of Fox Development. (Members of the Commerce Business Advisory Council, their energetic support of CBA has also been extended to funding the V. Dale Cozad Lecture Series and Scholarship Fund. See story) "Often students are tied solely to the university," Cozad told InSight. "This mentoring program gives them the opportunity to interact with the local business community. Even if they are going to leave the area, they'll leave with a good impression. And that's important. We don't know what the future holds, what opportunities may arise, not only for the business community but for the university. Opportunities that will bring our best and brightest students back to Champaign-Urbana."

Community Service Pays Off

Bill Martin is a very smart shopper. One time he came back from Target carrying a check for $10,000 in scholarship money. Not that the rising CBA sophomore quite planned it that way.

When his mother and father, who came to visit him on campus last February, casually suggested a quick trip to Target's store on North Prospect Avenue, he didn't think much about it — not even when he saw the managers who were waiting for them when they showed up. "I thought, `Gee, I wasn't here long enough to get in trouble,'" Martin later told the Daily Illini. Ushered into the store's back room, he was presented with an oversized check as Target staffers and his beaming parents (who'd set it all up in advance) looked on. "My knees were shaky for a little while," he confessed. He now keeps the check on display in his room — souvenir of the most unforgettable trip to the store he'll ever have in his life.

Bill Martin
Martin, a business administration major from Inverness, had applied for the scholarship, established by Target to recognize community service, six months before that startling February day. After all, he was being a smart shopper. "I saw the application when I was at a Target store. I took it home, brainstormed with my father, and wrote an essay about the various community service activities I've been involved in. When I hadn't heard back after six months — well, I just assumed that I wasn't going to get it." Incorrect assumption on his part, happy to say. And a good choice on Target's part. Martin, who at the age of twelve became the youngest Eagle Scout in the nation, has a fine record of community service. While in Scouts he built a series of special nests for bluebirds, lovely and endangered songbirds which nest in open fields and are vanishing along with their available habitat. "I built nineteen bluebird houses using a special new design," Martin told InSight. "I worked with Citizens for Conservation, putting them up in the Barrington area." Though it often takes three or four years before bluebirds choose to occupy these houses, Martin reports, with pleasure, that some of his already have tenants.
He has also been involved in volunteer efforts with Habitat for Humanity, Citizens for Conservation, and Little City — a home for mentally challenged people and children who have been abandoned. He does admit that life at the university — where he is getting his required coursework out of the way, and plans an emphasis in management information systems and entrepreneurship — has cut into the time he has available for public service. The one-time scholarship from Target will be used to meet the costs of his sophomore year. After that, Martin — whose freshman year was underwritten with a combination of grants and awards — will be scholarship-shopping again. But — no worries. As well as a fine community service record, he's an academic whiz, who has been experimenting with computers since he was five years old. "Of course, that was playing Chop Lifter on my brother's old Apple 2-e," he smiled. "But I was only in kindergarten."

Besides — he's a smart shopper. When settling on a university, he narrowed his choices to three — Harvard (his brother's alma mater), MIT, and the University of Illinois. "Harvard has more of a liberal arts emphasis, and I felt MIT was way more technical than I wanted to go. The University of Illinois offered me a blend of liberal arts and technical knowledge. It is perfect for me."

"I'm very impressed with the university," concluded the red-haired undergrad, who is heading for Hawaii this summer for
a programming job with an Internet start-up company. "There's so much here — so much you can learn. It seems like there's something going on every hour of the day."

Target Sponsors Case Competition for CBA Students

Undergraduate students got the opportunity to test their skills last winter, at a special case competition jointly sponsored by CBA's Industrial Distribution Management Program and well known retailer Target.

Held in Urbana, the first Target Scholarship Case Competition drew ten teams of students from CBA, including business administration majors specializing in such areas as IDM (industrial distribution management), MIS (management information systems), and marketing, as well as accountancy and finance majors. Students analyzed a seasonal inventory and logistics initiative Target had encountered in recent operations, and presented their recommendations to a panel of judges from Target, Cargill, Kimberly Clark, and Caterpillar. More than $7,000 in scholarship funds were provided to members of the four winning teams. Faculty member William Qualls, who heads the IDM Program, noted: "This is an excellent way to showcase the talents of our students to the industry. By sponsoring this event, Target has recognized the superior quality of our graduates."