“There are so many different ways to come at a problem,” said Dima Elissa, CEO of Visual Media in Chicago. “So many ways to engage yourself and unleash the entrepreneur in you.”
As adjunct faculty with ACM’s Chicago Program, Elissa and fellow entrepreneur Parissa Behnia – the Idea Chef at 678 Partners – are mentoring a group of students who are learning about the city’s business landscape and immersing themselves in entrepreneurship and innovation.
Dima Elissa (left) and Parissa Behnia of the Chicago Program during a field trip to a television production company.
Both Elissa and Behnia have filled key roles in enterprises ranging from tiny start-ups to multinational corporations, and they are drawing on that experience as they guide the students in conceiving, developing, and completing their independent study projects (ISPs), a major component of the program’s curriculum.
Entrepreneurship is an area of focus in the Chicago Program – Arts and Urban Studies are the others – and students can choose to concentrate in one area for their courses and projects or engage across all three.
The entrepreneurship ISP is a quick plunge into deep waters, and Behnia and Elissa bring an approach that is, by turn, both practical and inspirational. In the early weeks of the semester, they have engaged the students in explorations to help them sharpen the kinds of skills they will need to complete a successful project, such as active observation, research and analysis, and the curiosity to seek out connections linking cause with effect.
“That, to me, is the biggest liberating idea. We all have an entrepreneur within.”
– Dima Elissa
To provide a lens for examining entrepreneurship, the group’s explorations have focused primarily on the economic impact of filmmaking and TV in Chicago. The city’s history in filmmaking go back more than a century to the silent film era, when Essanay Studios and its star Charlie Chaplin anchored a thriving movie industry in the Uptown neighborhood. Today, the Chicago Film Office works to attract production of movies, television series, commercials, and documentaries to the city, and the film industry pumped more than $180 million into the local economy last year.
As a case study, for example, Behnia, Elissa, and the students have looked at how Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios and related companies were catalysts in the dramatic development and change that’s taken place in the city’s West Loop area over the past 25 years.
“It’s about the ripple effect, the concentric circles of complementary businesses, and the economic benefit,” said Behnia. Studio employees came to the area to work and visitors flooded the blocks surrounding the studios to be part of the live audience for Oprah’s show. Soon, more and more businesses sprang up to cater to the increased foot traffic and to serve the studios, and development gained more and more traction.
Chicago Program students and faculty pose with CEO Candi Carter (right) during a field trip to New Chapter Entertainment, a television production company.
“People started to say ‘Hey, if Oprah’s there, it’s safer for me to invest,'” Behnia noted. “So [the case study] becomes a general observation of entrepreneurship and capturing opportunity. What’s important is that we capture and understand the spirit of opportunity.”
The ISP group has been out and about in the city – a tour of the news studios of the local NBC affiliate, meeting film producers and documentary makers, talking with business owners in the West Loop who have been part of the area’s revival – with the aim of sparking the students’ interests in possible project topics.
The instructors’ contacts in the business community have been instrumental in creating those opportunities. Elissa and Behnia, both of whom have MBAs, and have worked in businesses ranging from small start-ups to large corporations, including American Express, NutraSweet, and Citigroup.
“Parissa has the more strategic marketing angle, and I’ve got business strategy, serial start-up, and technology experience,” said Elissa. “Together, we have a really nice balance. There’s a lot of experience that we have, individually and collectively, that will help the students appreciate the challenges that an entrepreneur faces.”
Students talking with Candi Carter (right), a former Senior Producer for The Oprah Winfrey Show who started up New Chapter Entertainment.
When it comes to choosing ISP topics, Behnia and Elissa suggest that students take a page from the entrepreneurial world they are studying. “Successful entrepreneurs have this passionate, visceral connection to what they’re doing,” Behnia explained. “They get excited and are not only advocates for their idea, but have other people become advocates for them, as well. In that same way, the students have to care about their projects.”
“The beauty of this kind of independent study is the students can pick something they’re passionate about,” Elissa added. “That’s what we encourage them to do – find something that interests them, appeals to them, speaks to them, and then pursue an understanding of it through the eyes of the business world of Chicago.”
The Chicago Program exposes students to the ways that entrepreneurs seek opportunities and take on challenges, and Elissa and Behnia point out that getting inside that entrepreneurial mindset provides lessons that go far beyond techniques for starting up a business.
“You can take the principles that you’re going to learn [in the ISP] and if you really, truly understand them, you can apply them to anything you do – personally, professionally – and really make a success and pursue anything that you want,” Elissa said. “That, to me, is the biggest liberating idea. We all have an entrepreneur within.”
Photos courtesy of Dima Elissa and Parissa Behnia.