Off The 2018 Launchpad: Kellogg’s Hottest MBA Startups

The 2017-18 Emerging Markets track of Zell Fellows traveled to Mexico City earlier in the year to meet with entrepreneurs and others in an emerging economy. Courtesy photo

Despite the popularity of the Zell Fellows, it is just one piece of Kellogg’s larger entrepreneurial portfolio. Schonthal cites the Levy Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which includes programming ranging from drafting business plans to prototyping to pitching to investors. The Kellogg Entrepreneurship Organization (KEO) is a highly selective group of roughly two dozen entrepreneurs who act similar to a campus YPO. At the same time, Northwestern University operates The Garage, an incubator that’s barely 200 yards from the Global Hub. That doesn’t even count the school’s Design Studio for prototyping or Innovation Lab that acts as another incubator.

“Zell is not the only path to do entrepreneurship here,” Schonthal notes.


Michalek admits that entrepreneurship is a tough topic to teach. While he attributes entrepreneurial success to risk tolerance and confidence, he adds that he is better for the “discovery frameworks, idea processes, and prototyping structures” he learned in classes. In fact, he has already put them to use, sharing a story of how he completed a handout from his negotiations course before meeting with a potential partner to reflect on priorities, target and reservation pricing, and best alternatives.

“It’s not just a one-time thing to do in class,” but something I can carry on and take to my actual business into the real world,” he says. “What Kellogg has done a really good job of is put me in situations and giving me opportunities to test things out in a pretty risk free environment.”

Brooke Vukovic. Courtesy photo

That environment extends beyond the classroom. Outside of Zell Fellows, Michalek received executive coaching from Brooke Vuckovic, who doubles as a leadership development professor at Kellogg. He found her counsel, along with her self-assessment tools, to be very enlightening. He even jokes that Vuckovic knows him “almost as well as his wife – a virtue that enabled her to introduce Michalek to her uncle: “America’s Veterinarian” Dr. Marty Becker. Not a bad connection for an entrepreneur working in the veterinary health space. “It’s introductions like that and the network that you have at Kellogg who are always opening up doors to make sure that we are going to be successful,” he adds.


After five years, Schonthal doesn’t plan to rest on his laurels. Instead, his plan is for Zell Fellows to evolve with the students who are accepted into it. “This program is by no means set in stone,” he admits. “Every year, we take a fresh look at what students are looking for and every year we make changes to how we do the program. My answer to some of these questions next year could be very different. We try to practice what we preach, which is making sure we have the right product for right customer.”

Looking ahead to the Zell program’s sixth year, Schonthal is weighing several wrinkles. Most notably, he is looking at moving the start date up to the beginning of the school year. “Every year, we’ve moved it up because student feedback is that they would’ve loved more time,” he notes. “This year, we moved the startup to November so the application started right at the beginning of school. Next year, we’re kicking around the idea of taking applications for next year’s class in May so they can start Zell programming right from day one.”

The program may also tinker with the composition of the fellows. Currently, the program targets second-year full-time MBAs, though one-years and students from joint JD and MD programs are eligible. Now, Schonthal is looking for ways to better integrate executive and evening MBAs as well. “We’ve also been thinking about how we might create a track to incorporate more experienced students,” he shares. “They are equally entrepreneurial. Their participation would benefit our students because they tend to bring a lot of domain knowledge and real world experience, particularly running and scaling business.”


Not surprisingly, the Zell Fellows program hasn’t ruled out adding new tracks in future years, with media and entertainment and real estate figuring most prominently in discussions. However, the greatest investment will likely be devoted to deepening Zell alumni engagement even further. “After this year’s program is over, we’ll have over a 100 alumni,” Schonthal notes. “How do we keep them coming back to mentor? How do we help keep them involved in the selection of future classes? We’re going to have this tremendous alumni asset. How we can keep them active in the program and how we can continue to support them in their entrepreneurial journey after graduation?”

Galvin Family Design Wing & Conference Center, which (among other things) houses Kellogg’s entrepreneurial initiative where students can work on their startup ideas. Courtesy photo

That alumni support extends beyond Kellogg as well, he adds “The Zell Fellows is becoming a global network, both in terms of our alumni base and our relationship to other Zell programs around the world, whether it is the program Sam funds in Israel or the University of Michigan. We are trying to create a global community and network — and Kellogg is a big part.”

What advice should prospective fellows heed before applying to the Zell program? Schonthal urges students to separate the “sizzle” of entrepreneurship from the sweat, strain, and stress behind it. “There are a number of students who come in thinking it would be great to be my own boss — that’s en vogue right now — without truly understanding what the emotional arc of being an entrepreneur is all about. Entrepreneurship is a calling. If you’re viewing it as a career choice, I find that students are a little shocked by the reality of how difficult this can be.”


That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Schonthal adds. “What we try to do in entrepreneurship education at Kellogg is give them a pretty authentic emotional experience of entrepreneurship. If they decide halfways through the year that this isn’t for me and choose a more traditional path, that’s a good outcome. What we don’t want is for someone to realize a year after they graduate that they weren’t equipped for this. We want to push that experience as forward as possible so they can realistically evaluate if entrepreneurship is for them.”

In contrast, Michalek urges a strategy that’s counterintuitive to the spirit inherent to most MBA entrepreneurs: Do less, not more.

“Be incredibly intentional when you’re at school. Many times, my peers have this big list of things they want to do in school – and then school gets in the way. Their list gets longer and they get lost. They end up following the crowd or really not accomplishing their goals. I shortened my list. My goals were to focus on real estate and entrepreneurship and get into Zell Fellows. I’ve done a good job of accomplishing each of them. When you come into a full time MBA program or entrepreneurship, you have a short, finite opportunity to do some pretty cool things that go outside your normal comfortable ways. Take advantage. Be intentional. Put yourself out there.”

To access information on the most impressive startups from the Zell Fellows in 2017-2018, including funding, achievements, and long-term goals, click on the company links below. 

Company Industry Founding students
BackWave Technologies Healthcare – Medical Devices Andrew Cabodi, Dr. Doug Clarke, Josh LeVay
reBLEND Food Justice/Natural Foods Kathryn Bernell
Hilltop Health Healthcare / Consumer (Veterinary Services) Chase Michalek
stay.EAT+DRINK Hospitality Milan Raj
Qualtrium Financial Services / Fintech Alejandro Orvañanos and Sebastián Velásquez






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