Courage to Follow Your Passion

 |   Shelley Stern Grach

Female Founders at University of Chicago Polsky Center

Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to step back and reflect on what really matters to you. And then to make a radical change in your life to commit to being true to what you believe in.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with several female entrepreneurs at the University of Chicago Polsky Center, as part of their monthly Female Founders Series. Not only did I meet some amazing women who have taken the plunge into the challenging world of entrepreneurship, but I discovered living examples of leadership and passion.

University of Chicago Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

The Polsky Center has a wide range of resources for entrepreneurs, both for university-affiliated people, as well as extending its reach into the surrounding neighborhoods. On this morning, I met with about 10 entrepreneurs—all in various stages of thinking through a new approach for their emerging businesses. Here are some of their stories…

  • One woman is from Englewood and she and her daughter are at the very, very early stages of defining their business model. She was looking for resources, and contacts and examples of how to network. She took notes, taking in the ideas for formulating her plan. She was especially interested in local neighborhood venues for training, such as Englewood Accelerator and the Polsky Center programs.
  • Another woman—highly energetic and already involved in “several businesses”—was looking for new ideas and ways to leverage her outreach. An avid social media user, she represented a different end of the spectrum. Already involved at conferences, and potentially expanding globally, you could see her literally evaluating ideas from the table and how she could take her business to the next level.
  • Next to me was a deep thinker, a University of Chicago alum, who was developing a business to assist people involved with sexual abuse. Clearly this was an entrepreneur who aligned her deep commitment to social justice with an important cause for women (and men). My sense was she knew where she wanted to focus and the impact she wanted to have to make the world a  better place, but she needed some ideas to develop a specific plan, refine her outreach and communications. I hope this was time well spent for her important mission.
  • Across from me was a recent departee from the corporate and consulting world, who has a clear vision on how to improve health delivery on a global level. Building her plan seemed to come naturally to her, and she is in the stages of refining her model. Extremely articulate, I have great confidence she will be a success.
  • Health care delivery was also the focus on another budding entrepreneur, who had lot of questions on how technology can help launch her business, especially how the Cloud and other “pay as you go” technical resources would be of value at the beginning of her business cycle.

All the women have great questions on mentoring: Where to go to meet mentors? What programs have various advantages? How do you ask a person to be your mentor (is it rude? How do you figure out who to ask?)? What can you expect from a mentor?

We also had a good dialog on social media and the room was somewhat split: some loved it and used it heavily. Others were new to social media beyond Facebook and LinkedIn. Some thought Twitter was amazing, others felt it was too random. Finally, we discussed the broad Chicagoland ecosystem for resources. We agreed that you need to prioritize your time, or you could “go to a meeting and eat cold pizza every night of the week.” We also agreed that the various services and organizations are complementary and an entrepreneur should be continually evaluating how each organization can help her reach her individual business goals.

Our host Kristin Barrett reviewed the various resources you get with membership at the Polsky Center and we also reviewed specific resources that Microsoft brings to Polsky for the entrepreneurs, including Office Hours with Dave Giard and access to Microsoft Azure and BizSpark, based on your business needs. I’d like to thank Kristin and her colleague Steph Avalos-Block for inviting me to meet with these inspiring women, who are taking a personal and professional risk to pursue their dream. Taking a risk like this is not easy and it takes a certain personality type and a specific skills to bring it all together. Through programs like the Female Founders Series at the University of Chicago Polsky Center, women entrepreneurs have a safe place to dialog, learn and be successful.

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Shelley Stern Grach
Shelley Stern Grach

They say that great work stems from a combination of passion and commitment, something that Shelley certainly possesses when it comes to her life and career. She currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Business Development Center, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Thrive Chicago, Year Up and LISC Chicago. At Microsoft Chicago, she’s the Director of Civic Engagement, working at the intersection of computing and community, promoting STEM programs and using Microsoft technology to spur growth in the community. So no matter if it's work, play, or giving back, Shelley always makes sure her drive and professionalism help her complete her life's goals.