Conference gives artists taste of the business world

The core idea behind the SEA program is to help rising artists – dancers, writers, singers or something else – discover the business principles they will need to survive, and hopefully prosper, as self-employed professionals.

That makes the 17th annual Self Employment in the Arts Conference later this month a pretty big deal: 60 speakers – most from the arts community but some from business – are on the program; there's a pitch competition similar to, though probably less intense than, TV's Shark Tank; and mentoring opportunities galore.

“Half of the creatives will be self-employed in some manner,” explains Conference Director Amy Rogers. “We really hope to introduce college students and other creatives to business concepts. We want to expose them to ideas and concepts so they can succeed over the years.”

The SEA program is housed at Naperville's North Central College, where the idea was born in the late 1990s. This year's conference is expected to draw about 450 artists, primarily students but some already in the community.

Conference dates are February 24-25; site is the Lisle Hilton Hotel, Lisle.

There are plenty of practical topics on the conference program. Planned discussions range from licensing, business structure and contracts, pricing, marketing, and the need for strategic planning to portfolio reviews.

The topic list is impressive, the type of discussion any beginning entrepreneur should join. More importantly, the value appears to be real.

“This will be my 10th year at SEA,” says Catherine Borzym, once a North Central student and today CEO of Kiwi Avenue, Plainfield. A self-described savvy marketer, designer and artist who focuses on small business brand enhancement, Borzym understands the conference.

Students, she says, “need to know how to get their artwork into a gallery (and) how to create marketing materials. I've learned how to do a business plan, how to price my services, how to talk to larger clients.”

Part of the SEA Conference's practical approach is the pitch session. Similar to the Shark Tank but without investment by any of the judges, the session gives a handful of pre-selected students an opportunity to present their arts-and-business ideas for a share of $2,000 in prize money.

Judges determine how the money will be shared.

The SEA program is funded in great part by The Coleman Foundation Inc., a Chicago-headquartered foundation established in the early 1950s by Dorothy and J.D. Stetson Coleman, entrepreneurs whose Fannie May candy company became a Midwestern legend.

The foundation has traditionally backed entrepreneurship programs, mostly at the collegiate level. Last year, according to the organization's website, Coleman grants in the education and entrepreneurship category were just shy of $404,000 – including $90,000 to North Central for SEA program support.

Similarly focused grants were awarded to Milliken University, the Chicago Artists Coalition, Prairie State College and the Future Founders Foundation.

Cancer care and programs for those with development disabilities are the foundation's other primary focus.

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