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Living Proof:
Illinois Faculty Explain Their Entrepreneurial Drive

Marked signs of a strong entrepreneurial zeal at the U of I and surrounding Champaign-Urbana area emanated from the first panel discussion hosted by the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership. The December session united four successful faculty members who have managed to cohesively merge their entrepreneurial drives with their passions for teaching. The educators offered insights on what it means to be an entrepreneur, discussed the university's role in a global climate increasingly focused on entrepreneurship, and explained the benefits that entrepreneurial educators can bring to academia.

Moderator Leigh Estabrook, a professor of library and information science, facilitated the panel which included Sara Hook, an associate professor of dance, Andrew Singer, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and the Coordinated Science Lab, Robert McChesney, Institute for Communications Research and professor of library and information science, and Lawrence Schook, the Institute for Genomic Biology and professor of animal sciences, nutritional sciences, and veterinary pathobiology.

Re-invention: A Tale of Two Worlds

Sara Hook."In dance, if you have made it to middle age and are still involved in the performing art of dance, then you have to be a crafty person," explained Sara Hook, founder of her own dance company, Sara Hook Dances. She and her fellow panelist are works in progress whose stories unfold as testaments to the central element in the entrepreneur: re-invention. For Hook, the only route toward a life in dance after her leotard days ended came through re-invention. She cited her entrepreneurial spirit as an integral part in facilitating her successful dance career and avoiding the mindset of many aging dancers who, like other athletes, feeling limited and inadequate, see the end of the physical career as the death of opportunity. "Those of us still in it [dance] have re-invented ourselves a number of times." After a successful dance career-beginning as a soloist with the Nikolai Dance Theater, touring globally, appearing on syndicated television, and collaborating with such luminaries as Pearl Lang and Stephen Koplowitz-Hook attained an MFA from New York University's Tish School of the Arts and ultimately developed herself as a choreographer, producer, and director. Eventually she went on to found her uniquely styled dance company which, unlike the traditional companies, allows dancers more self-autonomy by not being dependent on the director for the bulk of their sustenance.

Andrew Singer.Andrew Singer's transition from the role of research scientist for Lockheed Martin to assistant professor at the U of I facilitated a gradual discovery of a nascent entrepreneurial vigor that would prove profitable in and out of the classroom. His re-invention came through a bout of nostalgia: "There were some aspects of industry I missed: working to the last minute to finish a project, working on the next contract, the awards." Singer's solution was an ideal synthesis of private enterprise and academia that allowed him the opportunity to research electronic chips that would advance the technologically antiquated field of optical communications. Out of this research and collaboration with faculty colleagues, a company, CADEX, was formed.

Lawrence Schook cited his tenure at the U of I as multi-dimensional, "It is a tale of two worlds, the wonderful life we have at the U of I on the one hand and the world we create as part of our entrepreneurial spirit on the other." Robert McChesney.

Robert McChesney echoed this plurality. "When I first came here [U of I] I was just going to focus on writing and teaching." McChesney subsequently became interested in a forum that would bring together speakers from throughout the world who are focused on improving media discourse. His initial vision became the Illinois Initiative on Global Information and Communication Policy.

 

'Look at the tall one in the peach leotard.'

"Students migrate to the East and West coasts because they see an entrepreneurial buzz that isn't as visible here [Midwest]," explains Lawrence Schook, genomics professor and founding scientist of Pyxis Genomics, a research company devoted to the study of animal health and development across species. His company, based in Chicago, is also focused on bringing entrepreneurial life back to the Midwest, and part of that goal involves re-defining the university's relationship towards scientists like Schook. "The university views scientists who want to develop and market ideas as money-driven." Schook cites the contrary in what he and the other panelists see as a win-win for the university. "My experience in private enterprise has made me a better learner and a more focused researcher, qualities that both the university and I can benefit from."

Andrew Singer sees a gradual change in academia's view of entrepreneurial faculty, a change he believes is spearheaded by Illinois' progressive attitude towards aiding the business aspirations of its educators. "At the time of my initial interest in starting a company, the University was still in the mode of not really encouraging faculty to start businesses. I think now more than ever, that is all changing. The University of Illinois sees, like no other school, the win-win of the entrepreneurial-modeled university."

Hook also chimed in on the benefits of incorporating the craftiness of entrepreneurship into curricula. She teaches her students the importance of networking and not being bound inside the box of performance, "Networking is important; I rose through the ranks at Nikolai due to friends elbowing the director saying, 'look at the tall one in the peach leotard.' Having an artistic home does not equate to stability." Hook further articulated her number one teaching goal, "I want to de-construct the myth that claims that all dancers must do is dance." Springer's CADEX illustrates another benefit of merging business with education. Since its inception, the company has hired Illinois graduates and has even utilized Champaign-Urbana's up and coming venture capital community.

Creating Value

"I've learned incredible amounts about what value means from a social, market-driven perspective," states Schook, who believes that his experience in private enterprise has brought him a greater understanding of his career and of his students. "Students today really want to do something that has a lot of value-that has a real impact in the communities in which they live-not to make more money."

Each panelist expressed a fuel greater than money in his/her entrepreneurial engines. Sara Hook said she is driven by a compelling heart that led her to create the Pink Ribbon Society, a charitable organization that fights breast cancer through dance, in memory of her deceased sister who was taken by the disease.

Although they are in vastly different disciplines, the four Illinois faculty have two things in common: A love of teaching and a passion for creating enterprises.


The Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership offer entrepreneurial programs, services, and resources to faculty and graduate students on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.

--Michael Romain
January 2005