Celebrating Evanston Entrepreneurship Week!

Fans of ‘Shark Tank’ would have felt right at home at the Evanston Startup Showcase presentation on Tuesday evening, part of Evanston Entrepreneurship Week. Five startup businesses presented their concepts to a panel of four successful entrepreneurs and an audience of about one hundred potential investors, friends and interested parties. Everyone involved has a connection to Evanston, either as a resident or because their businesses are here.

The moderator for the night was Patrick Hughes, a successful entrepreneur and the Founder/CEO of Inclusion=Solutions, an Evanston-based business whose mission is to develop and supply practical products to make inclusion possible for people with disabilities or the elderly. Patrick’s outgoing personality, quick humor and take charge attitude kept the presentations on schedule without ever getting tedious.

The ground rules were straightforward: 5 minutes for the pitch, 5 minutes of Q&A from the panel, 5 minutes of audience Q&A. The five lucky presenters were selected from nearly 100 submissions.

First up was Jono Kupferberg, CEO/Co-Founder of STS Footwear, a company founded on the belief that every fan needs a footwear option. Jono showcased many creative iterations designed by Director of Design/Co-Founder Isaiah Smith, and the two men discussed their patent-pending manufacturing concept. They need $50,000 to fund their initial launch. The panel asked a lot of questions about their market research, licensing agreements, pricing and other metrics. In the world of branded products and sports-related wearables, STS Footwear may have something unique. They hope to authorize their first production run by mid 2015.

The second presentation was by Brian Hill, Co-Founder of Jail Education Solutions. Of the five presentations, this was the one I found most captivating. Using customized tablet technology and an educational platform called Edovo, they provide intuitive educational courses to incarcerated people who are rewarded for learning. Jail Education Solution’s mission is to unlock the potential of the 12 million Americans imprisoned annually and reduce rates of recidivism. Their tablet system is already being tested in six institutions; others are signing up each month. It’s an amazing feat thus far and they are just getting started. I think we will hear great things about this company.

The third presentation was a needs-based app called DINE., conceived by three 19-year old Northwestern University students (Luke, McKenna and Garrett) who want to create a better algorithm for restaurant selection tailored to the diner’s specific needs. The app, still in development, will propose three choices to ease selection rather than present unfiltered information in the style of Yelp and Zagat’s. The panel of experts enthused over the presentation, which was impressive, but even more so given the presenters’ ages.

Fourth up was Jennifer Alexander from Chapín Coffee. Their motto is ‘Fuel your day with purpose,’ and for every bag of Chapín Coffee sold, three meals are donated to malnourished Guatemalan children through Feed the Dream. Chapín Coffee sustains local farmers by purchasing only Fair Trade Certified coffee, protects the environment by sourcing organically grown coffee, and helps local women artisans maintain their craft skills by purchasing woven gift bags. Jennifer is a great presenter and the audience responded positively with ideas and contacts. For those of you looking for lovely holiday gifts, look no further than a Chapín Coffee Subscription.

The final presentation was the most fun and the one that generated the most audience involvement. Kenny Johnson, the inventor of patent-pending Funny Gloves, is Evanston-born and raised, a proud graduate of ETHS and a vocal promoter of everything the city has to offer. He has created a toy—think of a large pair of talking puppets used by two people to play catch together—that gets kids out of the house to exercise. Anyone over the age of about three years old can play and one size fits most. Kenny is an effervescent presenter: he’s already pitched the idea to the actual Shark Tank folks and is waiting to hear if he’s been selected. Just based on his story and pitch, I think Kenny is well on his way to reaching his goals. He’s created something new and has the passion and drive to do whatever it takes to see it through. The gloves are available online for $25 a pair.

Kudos to the presenters and panelists, the moderator, Rotary International for hosting and First Bank & Trust for sponsoring, the City of Evanston and Northwestern University for their support. It was a wonderful and interesting evening, and hopefully part of an annual tradition.

Tagmaster: Last Plant Standing

Just behind the U.S. Post Office on Main Street lies Tagmaster, the only remaining manufacturing business still residing in Evanston. (Current zoning laws prevents the construction of new factories.)  I recently attended a factory tour and was amazed by what was taking place in my (virtual) backyard.

The family owned business, founded in 1949, is a leader in the promotional products industry and sells to distributors, not the general public. With more than 500 products in inventory and over 200 regular and seasonal employees, Tagmaster can add a company logo and tagline to almost anything: pens, notebooks, bags, water bottles and more.

The factory is bright and very clean, and many of the employees are cross-trained to increase efficiencies and prevent bottlenecks.  Most of the workforce has the kind of long tenure one never hears about anymore—10 years, 20 years, 35 years and more. It’s a union shop with a family vibe; the current president, Cary Shevin, is the son of the founder and still active in the business.

Product safety is a big concern in the industry, and one Tagmaster takes very seriously, especially since many of the products available for sale are imported from overseas.  Each manufacturer of origin is monitored, products are evaluated constantly and quality control standards are stringent.  To assist in this effort, Tagmaster invested in a portable XOS Materials Analysis machine. The whole thing is about the size of a carry-on suitcase, but it opens up to reveal a platform (second photo). The item being evaluated—I subjected my business card holder for analysis—is placed directly on the platform. In less than five minutes after the door closed, an outside screen (third photo) lights up with detailed measurements of every chemical element in the object. I found out my metal business card holder consists primarily of copper, but also contains chromium, the element highlighted in red. In the U.S., chromium is prohibited in products marketed to children.

Tagmaster is a vibrant neighbor along the Main Street corridor. It’s responding proactively to rapid economic and technological changes and seems to be thriving. Here’s to another 65 years!

Food, Glorious Food at Now We’re Cookin’

The Hill Arts District in Evanston, just west of where Noyes Street and Green Bay Road intersect, houses unique lofts and live-work spaces. Now We’re Cookin’ resides on the site of a former dairy. Described as a multi-faceted culinary service center, it ranks as one Evanston’s best kept secrets and is home to the city’s only Food Business Incubator for start-up food businesses.

According to Nell Funk, Chef and Owner, Now We’re Cookin’ provides services in a few different realms: a shared kitchen space for caterers, chefs and others who need the size and capabilities of a commercial kitchen; a facility for monthly seminars on Introduction to Entrepreneurship and quarterly Food Business 101 courses, chef training and classes for non-chefs; a corporate meeting space for presentations and team building exercises; a private event space for parties and events; a high-end, chef’s kitchen for filming food-related events and cooking shows; and private consulting for food-related companies.

Nell’s favorite part of the business is running the Incubator. When a person or team is ready to launch a food business, they apply to join the Incubator; once enrolled, each pairs with an experienced mentor and is given access to a range of services and industry connections. One of the bonuses of the Incubator relationship is exposure to strategy sessions with business students through a special affiliation with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the Levy Entrepreneurial Institute and the School’s Food and Agribusiness Club.

I attended one of these presentations in February and watched teams of students–many with prior food experience–map out creative and innovative ideas to address specific issues. The burgeoning food business clients included Bakers Man Chicago (specialty baked cookies and baked goods), Prohibition Spice Co. (sausage spice blends and rubs) and D-ology (allergy-free and gluten-free baked goods). Each business appreciated the feedback and the students appreciated the chance to offer strategic advice to food entrepreneurs. Several team members expressed interest in continuing to work with ‘their’ business; maybe that new involvement is just what’s needed to help both parties meet their respective goals.

Preparing food is the most basic form of creativity. We all eat. What other art form involves all five of our senses?  If you are passionate about wanting to start your own food business, or just want to learn more to see if you have what it takes, it’s worth a call to Now We’re Cookin’. Located at 1601 Payne Street, Unit C, in Evanston or call 847-570-4140.

Look Better Naked

akemi fitness.jpgLast week I stumbled upon one of Evanston’s best kept fitness secrets: Akemi Fitness Method. Jocelyn Davis, Akemi’s owner and founder, leads an array of efficient, enthusiastic and effective exercise classes. If you’ve ever wanted tighter abs, sculpted arms and a firm behind, I urge you to take a class. I did and I am hooked.

Jocelyn has a hard-core group of devotees, but her bubbly nature makes every newbie comfortable. Jocelyn has taught and danced for nearly 20 years. Akemi is her first solo enterprise, which she opened almost five years ago. If the depth and breadth of her experience doesn’t convince you, a skeptic needs no better proof than observing Jocelyn’s toned physique.

Attendees must pre-register, which you can do right on the website. The studio offers one class at a time; it’s not a gym where people go to ‘hang out’ and not work. My classmates arrived a few minutes before class started and were already wearing their workout gear. They were all friendly and chatty, but once the class started all eyes were on Jocelyn. She started the class on time and did not let up for an hour. The music was hip and upbeat and Jocelyn offers suggestions and corrections if needed as she leads the class. Of course we took water breaks and stretched out in child’s pose often, but I felt the intensity immediately. I also felt it the next day, but it’s a good kind of muscle pain that proves my body was actually working…and more out of shape than I realized. With a variety of classes offered each morning and most evenings, there are several instructors. Each one has been personally trained by Jocelyn.

The studio resides on the South side of Davis Street between Hinman and Chicago, tucked into the alley to the left of the dry cleaner as you are facing the street. (The exact address is 518 1/2 Davis Street.)