IVCA Q&A Profile: Kevin Willer, New CEO of the Chicago Entrepreneurial Center, and Dave Tolmie, Partner at The Edgewater Funds

IVCA Q&A Profile: Kevin Willer, New CEO of the Chicago Entrepreneurial Center, and Dave Tolmie, Partner at The Edgewater Funds

April 13, 2011

CHICAGO - “ Last month, the Chicago Entrepreneurial Center (CEC) announced the appointment new CEO, Kevin Willer. The CEC identifies and helps the region's most promising entrepreneurs build high-growth, sustainable businesses that serves as platforms for economic development and civic leadership in Chicago.

Willer was one of the original nine executives who founded the Chicago office of Google, the world's most popular internet search engine in 2000. Kevin helped grow that office into 400 employees, and established relationships with national and local companies in the Chicago area. Part of his executive responsibilities at Google was to advance civic relationships, a skill he brings to the CEC.

The IVCA spoke with Kevin Willer during his hectic first week on the job, and also talked to Dave Tolmie, a partner at The Edgewater Funds, who helped spearhead the search for the new CEO of the Chicago Entrepreneurial Center.

IVCA: Kevin, you are moving from big growth tech commerce at Google to a non-profit civic organization called the Chicago Entrepreneurial Center. What opportunities drew you to this challenge and what aspect of the position most sparked your interest?

Kevin Willer: Google's growth in Chicago was a lot of fun, and at the time when we were slugging it out and trying to make a name for ourselves, folks in the community stopped by, asked if they could help out and made connections for us. That was an important piece of our growth. In the last couple of years at Google, I worked on our civic development efforts in Chicago and I also worked with entrepreneurs, connecting them with Google and the community. Basically I jumped to this role at the CEC because I really think this platform gives me a much broader opportunity to make an impact on the community.

IVCA: In the mode of hitting the ground running, what are your goals for the first three months at this position?

Willer: I'm only four days in, [laughs] I don't have it all figured out yet. But my short term goals is spending time with the great team we already have in place at the CEC, to learn about the work they've been doing, and build on it. This week I've also been meeting with entrepreneurs and some of our clients. I was learning from them how the CEC helped them and what they need going forward. I'm meeting with the various industry organizations, like the IVCA. I'm also visiting all the universities and I will be going to lot of industry events in the next three months, speaking on panels and letting people know the new CEC and my role here.

IVCA: Dave, since the search for the new CEO of the CEC took quite a while, what specific qualifications and experience were you seeking?

Dave Tolmie: We were looking for someone who could be a leading advocate for entrepreneurship and start-up companies in the Chicagoland area. The characteristics for that person include: someone who has successfully built a company and has visibility and respect in the community. We also wanted a candidate who was willing to take on a job that would provide as much benefit for the Chicago business community as it would for them personally.

IVCA: Since Kevin's background is in tech commerce, specifically the Chicago office of Google, what unique skills will he transfer to his position at the CEC?

Tolmie: Kevin has proven his own entrepreneurial skills in building the Google office in Chicago, so he'll bring that practical experience. Kevin is very familiar with many business models of technology-based companies who were looking to do business with Google or were acquired by Google. He's got a first hand awareness of what makes a tech company succeed and can transfer that awareness to his new role at the CEC.

IVCA: Kevin, the buzz here is that entrepreneurs generally have had some difficulty cracking the Chicago corporate network. How are you planning to loosen those barriers and what advice would you give those entrepreneurs, based on your knowledge of the market?

Willer: What the CEC has been able to bring to entrepreneurs historically, and because it came out of the Chamber of Commerce, was to provide a connection to all the member companies in the Chamber, from large corporate, midsize and smaller firms. So one way to crack the barriers is to go through a resource like the CEC. The CEC can also - ˜tell the stories' of the great young entrepreneurs that we have in Chicago, and tell them directly to the business audiences. That gives the entrepreneur great exposure to the corporate network here. How will it get easier? Success breeds success. We have more stories now than we ever had before with Groupon, Cleversafe, GrubHub, Appolicious, BrightTag and Excelerate Labs. These are the great stories that are being told right now and that is what the corporate network is paying attention to. My advice to entrepreneurs is to be buttoned up with your value proposition and what your - ˜ask' is...do you need connections, investment, talent? And you have to be ready at a moments notice to be able to share that, whether it's in an elevator or being asked to a formal meeting.

IVCA: Here's a question for both of you. What, from your perspective, are the best ways that the CEC can support the entrepreneurial community in Chicago?

Willer: Today, the CEC is really good at connecting great mentors through our Executive in Residence program. These mentors come from all sectors, for example the venture world and the academic world, and we're able to connect those sectors to high potential entrepreneurs. What we want to build, because the CEC is an independent non-profit organization, is a bridge for the entire entrepreneurial eco-system in Chicago. And we can bring together investors, industries and organizations that do great programming to support that eco-system.

Tolmie: The CEC wants to be the address for entrepreneurs, so that they are recognized as the go-to resource for promising high growth companies. And the CEC wants to benefit from the experience of established entrepreneurs to provide services for that community. Plus there are many organizations in the region that are government or university sponsored that provide support for start-ups. The CEC wants to be the trusted resource that provides entrepreneurs with services and also makes the introductions to the most relevant support organizations, in Chicago and the surrounding region. 

IVCA: Kevin, what do you anticipate from Rahm Emanuel and his new mayoral administration in regard to the CEC?

Willer: In my Google role, I got to spend some time with him, and he has shown great interest in connecting with the entrepreneurial community in Chicago, through the campaign and up to now. He sat down with high potential, high growth companies like BrightTag and GrubHub, and got their perspectives on what Chicago needs to get world-class entrepreneurs here. Everything I've seen and heard from the Emanuel administration points to strong support, and I think the CEC will be a great resource for the administration to connect to the community.

IVCA: Again, for both of you. In our technological times, 'innovation' has become almost an overused term. To you, what is true innovation and how can potential entrepreneurs express their innovation in building their enterprises in Chicago?

Tolmie: True innovation requires developing unique service offerings that provides value for a customer. There are many - ˜cool' ideas, but if they don't provide a valuable service they don't become successful businesses.

Willer: Innovation is an interesting term. Google is always looked at as an innovative company, and I always look back to our roots. When we started, there were many search engines like Yahoo and Alta Vista. Google didn't create the search engine, it merely created a better way to search. They - ˜innovated' in a space that was doing well, but they did it better. So innovation to me is when you are taking something that already exists, an existing product or service, and put them together in compelling ways to create new value for customers, or you take something that exists and make it more valuable just on its own, by doing it or thinking about it in a new way. Innovation in the Midwest is testing new approaches to old business problems, like web based platforms to solve problems that have been around a long time.

IVCA: Finally, how can IVCA membership help support the goals of the CEC?

Willer: First, I want to hear from any of the members of the IVCA, to give me feedback about what they'd like to have the CEC do. Second, I love any of the association to give a couple hours a month as an Executive in Residence, a mentor to our high potential Cluster Acceleration Program clients. We're ready to match them up with the right entrepreneurs. Next, of course, considering investments in some Chicago start-ups or consider giving them feedback on their investor pitch, even if it's not right for their investment funds. That is so valuable for the entrepreneurs. And finally, the IVCA membership has a vast network across the country and globally in the investment community. I'd like them to continue to tell the stories about what is going on with Chicago start-ups, and all the excitement that is going on here, because we need interest from outside the area and we need to keep accelerating it.

Tolmie: The IVCA is the type of organization I referenced before, a relevant entrepreneurial support association that already has a great relationship with the CEC. As companies come to the CEC to try to figure out where is the best place to go to seek out venture funding, that would be a perfect opportunity for the IVCA membership to be introduced to them in that early stage. Secondly, the experience of many IVCA members can be valuable as mentors to entrepreneurs, and we hope to provide more opportunities in that regard

More information is available at http://www.chicagolandec.org/