Off The 2018 Launchpad: Kellogg’s Hottest MBA Startups

Roshni Khurana, 2016-17 Zell Fellow, talking with Sam Zell about her venture. Courtesy photo


Faculty expertise is just one tool in the Zell Fellows arsenal. For one, the tracks are given access to resources that they’d normally shell out big bucks for if they leaped in entrepreneurship cold. Schonthal even clicks off a list, which includes healthcare and regulatory professionals, intellectual property attorneys, investors and fund managers, and experts in governmental affairs and emerging markets. The benefit? Simple, says Schonthal, such resources give graduates the best advantages in running a sustainable business after graduation.

Those aren’t the biggest enticements for Zell Fellows, either. “They also get a supplement — a $10,000 stipend per student that they can spend on business expenses for building their business,” adds Schonthal. “These may include such as legal services, design services, programming and other related expenses that would go into building the business entity itself. So it goes beyond the mentorship and exposure.”

Beyond that, the Zell Fellows program has built-in programming to aid students in their industries. Notably, says Schonthal, each track attends a conference geared to their passions. Acquisition and Ownership fellows, for example, traditionally head to a conferences focused on search funds and M&A. The program also offers opportunities to attend global events such as SXSW or the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Conference. In addition, the program blocks off time for fellows to interact with high profile entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Chicago and beyond.

“We give them the means to go to the environments in which they stand to benefit most for building their business,” Schonthal emphasizes. “We make sure they get in front of the thought leaders and the community that they are going to be part of.”


One way Zell Fellows does this is through its annual trek to Israel over spring break. Led by Sam Zell himself, the Zell Fellows visit leading startups and complete intensive programming. The real benefit, however, is the time spent together networking and solving similar startup issues — not just with Zell peers at IDC and the University of Michigan, but also with Zell alumni.

A Zell fellow sharing feedback on a prototype. Courtesy photo

“This year, we brought 25 alumni from our program,” Schonthal recalls. “They spent a lot of time with our current students. I’m already starting to hear the stories. We had one student who is launching an eCommerce business who got some time to spend with one of our first Zell students, Chris Chon, who’s one of the founders of Leonard and Church, a successful watch business. They spent an hour together talking about the ins-and-outs of ecommerce and our current student walked away with a ton of useful knowledge about how she might go about her business differently based on Chris’ experience. We had a bunch of healthtech alumni show up in Israel who worked with another student on things like how they structured their clinical trials, who they went to for fund-raising, and landmines they stepped on to help him avoid those things.”

Such consideration, particularly from the fellowship’s benefactor, also left a lasting impression on Michalek. “Covering expenses for things like business formation or logo design is great,” he admits. “What I’ll remember this program most for is the people. Having spent time personally with Sam Zell in Israel and having access to the people who work for him or with him, I know how much they care about the people in this program and what they’re trying to helping us accomplish together. It’s not like they are taking financial stakes in our companies. They’re taking stakes in our personal selves. They’re making personal investments in us. I really feel this support will not only benefit me going forward, but I can look back on it and say, ‘This is what really differentiated my business and my experience at Kellogg.’”


Kellogg alumni are even more engaged when the Zell Fellows are back in Evanston. When it comes to choosing students to be Zell Fellows, each track features an advisory council with 1-2 alumni members.  That’s just the start, Schonthal notes. “They also come in a lot for talks and mentoring or even make themselves available for office hours. What we’re trying to create is something not unlike a YPO-type community where if you are a Zell alum or student, there is no hesitation ever of picking up the phone and calling another Zell, knowing your phone call or email will be returned.”

Michalek has picked up some of his best lessons from Caroline Snider, a 2017 Zell Fellow and founder of Welltended, an ecommerce platform for potted plants. The winner of several pitch competitions who has grown her business without giving up any equity, Snider has served as an inspiration and mentor to Michalek.

“She gave me this quote — and I use it a lot with my business — ‘Don’t let the great get in the way of the good.’ That’s really important when you are a first time entrepreneur with a background in consulting or private equity, where you’re used to making things perfect. With startups, you need to make things work and keep things happening.  You don’t have the time to perfect everything.”


Perhaps much of the learning in the Zell Fellows programs comes from students interacting with each other. In some ways, this is born of necessity: Being a student entrepreneur is a completely different experience than what their MBA peers enjoy.

“Entrepreneurship can be a pretty lonely experience,” asserts Schonthal. “Having this community of people who are simultaneously struggling to build businesses and going through the emotional ups-and-downs is tremendously confidence-instilling, particularly as they look at their peers at Kellogg who might be doing more traditional career paths and taking roles in large corporations. This is a group that is deliberately bypassing recruiting. There are a number of different reasons for them to second guess their decision when they see the sizable salaries that their peers are commanding or when people are spending time on the weekends having fun instead of building a business.”

Kellogg School of Management’s Global Hub in Evanston, Illinois. Courtesy photo

That’s why fostering community is such a priority with the Zell Fellows. While the program boasts four tracks, the fellows often engage in experiential learning activities that weave the tracks together to foster what Schonthal calls “a diversity of perspectives.” It is this sense of community, as much as viable startups, that the programs hopes to leave with its graduates. “We’re consciously trying to get them to develop bonds and relationships to support each other long after they leave this program,” adds Schonthal.


That esprit de corps carries over to the fellows themselves, who often act as their own support network. In fact, many 2018 fellows have established their own informal groups whose members cross the various tracks to offer services such as design reviews. Such group investment, says Michalek, gives fellows an educated take on each other’s businesses.

“Zell is almost like a miniature version of YPO,” he explains. “Imagine 10 people who know your business intimately well because they’ve heard your elevator pitch honed over the past six months. They know your insides-and-outs, as you give them weekly updates, and they hear what your obstacles are and what you’re working on. They’re able to help you in ways you probably wouldn’t have thought of.”

Students don’t always congregate in groups for support, either. When he needs advice — or just someone to listen — Michalek often makes a bee-line for Jennifer Barron, whose career empowerment consulting model is almost the inverse of his high-tech veterinary platform. Michalek also meets regularly with Rei Kawano, whose Heed PetFoods venture dovetails nicely with the veterinary industry. “We actually have our own bi-weekly one-on-one sessions, where we hold each other accountable and problem-solve issues that we’re facing in our businesses. I also think there are ways for our businesses to work well together down the road too.”


On average, 16 Kellogg MBAs a year have immediately started a business after graduation since 2014. Despite this number, Zell Fellows has emerged as one of the most coveted tickets at Kellogg. According to Schonthal, 160 students showed up for informational workshops about the program at the start of the year. After applications are submitted, roughly one in three candidates are chosen for a spot. To winnow down applications, Schonthal and the advisory councils evaluate the seriousness of candidates using four criteria.

“One, can they bring more than just an idea to the table,” Schonthal posits. “Is this concept a plan for acquisition or a plan for launching a business from scratch? Have they made progress and developed traction? Does it appear that they’ve planned for the Zell program for a while? We’re also looking for someone who has some evidence and data and work behind their concept. Two, are they a founder or co-founder of a business? We’re accepting just one founder from a company at a time, so we want them to execute change in the business and not report up to someone else. Third, we want them to be coachable — are they just here for the resources and money or do they know what they don’t know and they’re looking to develop as both entrepreneurs and leaders? Finally, are they looking to give as much as they get? Because the support for each other is so important, we want them to be a contributor to both the campus community and also be an active Zell alum.”

Go to page 4 to access in-depth profiles of the most promising startups at Kellogg this year.

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