Suburban college unveils business accelerator

What happens when the board of trustees names an individual with a strong entrepreneurial background as president of the hometown college?

ConVerge. At least that's what students, the Naperville business community, and faculty and staff at North Central College are beginning to enjoy thanks to Troy Hammond, Martha Carney and, with an early seminar sponsorship, Itasca Bank & Trust Co. Tagged as The Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, ConVerge is very much a startup - with the attendant risks and potential.

If you're a bettor, though, bet on the potential.

For one thing, the college has a significant history of business community support. For 16 years, North Central has hosted an annual Self Employment in the Arts (SEA) Conference that is intended to provide artists of all sorts with basic business and entrepreneurial skills, and since 1999 the Chicago-based Coleman Foundation has supported a professor of entrepreneurship and small business at the school.

In the fall, Itasca Bank & Trust's Women's Initiative brought its sponsorship of Project CEO, a series of programs intended to help women business owners improve skills that range from contract negotiation to process improvement, to ConVerge.

It's certainly too soon to tell, but ConVerge's longest-lasting benefit may be its ability to connect college students and smaller businesses. "We're about creating a plethora of opportunities for students to extend their education (into) the real world by working with entrepreneurial companies," Hammond says.

"We get students coming to North Central for our entrepreneurship program, because they know in their gut that they want to be entrepreneurs."

Hammond, an entrepreneur before taking the reins at Naperville's North Central in 2013, clearly is driving the ConVerge bus. Implementation of the concept, however, falls largely to Carney, whose experience includes the launch and successful sale of two small businesses.

It's up to Carney to blend students and the suburban business community.

It's tempting, though not necessarily fair, to contrast ConVerge with the Small Business Development Centers that are struggling - and disappearing - as a result of the state's budget problems. Carney positions ConVerge as a business accelerator.

Broadly, business accelerators provide a batch of services to mostly, but not only, startup companies eager to move at a fairly fast pace. It's unclear at the moment as to how fast ConVerge will drive participating companies.

You'll have to go to for the full list of ConVerge services, which includes mentoring, workshops and roundtables, and capital sources - but two stand out. One is co-working space.

North Central has rented space in downtown Naperville to house a variety of co-working services. Some services are free; there's a generally manageable cost for others.

Perhaps the most interesting ConVerge program, at least today, is Cardinal Launch - a faculty-led consulting approach for both small businesses and what the college sees as innovation teams from larger companies. The intriguing part of Cardinal Launch is that North Central students are part of the team.

•© 2016 Kendall Communications Inc. Follow Jim Kendall on LinkedIn and Twitter. Write him at Listen to Jim's Business Owners' Pod Talk at

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