Business Matters is a series of brief conversations to check-in with corporate, civic, and community stakeholders to gauge the health and progress of our local entrepreneurial ecosystems across Central Illinois. Where are we at today? Are we making progress? How can we support startups and innovation? This is one of many conversations to discover more about the current challenges, hidden opportunities and future possibilities.


DWDoan Winkel

Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship, Illinois State University

Organizer, TEDxNormal

What are the highlights of the entrepreneurial and startup movement over the past year?
Launching the Innovative Entrepreneurs program with the Unit 5 School District. It honestly started by thinking about my 10 year old son and knowing that there wasn’t a curriculum that can really teach business to kids. I was asking around trying to get an entrepreneur program launched. I coordinated many meetings. Eventually, Unit 5 took it. They were the biggest and they could handle it.

I built the curriculum and helped pick the students. It only took about 5 months to create. There were about 5-6 meetings with teachers and we worked to fit it with Common Core. Julie Hinman was selected as the teacher and kickoff was before school started last year. In total, 24 kids from 2  different schools went through the first program.

This showed me that if this could happen… then there are some real possibilities.

Do you see any issues, gaps, or improvements that the Bloomington-Normal area entrepreneurial ecosystem needs to address?
Siloing is a big problem as it is with most cities our size. But it seems like institutions are collaborating, but it’s slow. Right now, it doesn’t seem to benefit the startups which is what is needed. However, the entrepreneurial ecosystem needs to be driven by entrepreneurs – not institutions. To better serve the community, we need well organized and educated capital. Additionally we need to educate investors because they are not educating startups.

Which would you focus on first?
Focus on the breaking down the of silos, then people start to see progress, then they get excited, and then it’s easier to funnel capital into excited and progress. A strategy to do so is bringing people around the table to collaborate on something that isn’t any of theirs that they own.

People getted jazzed about kids and learning. Doing more of that gets people onboard. And leave the money conversation off the table from the start. As soon as the money comes into play then ownership comes into play. Those organizational entities need to function the way they need to function in order to do business, but they can’t operate in this sphere. And that’s fine, we just need to recognize that.

I’ve had success by making small bets. Gamblers make money by placing small bets not big bets. In starting 1 Million Cups here for instance, it’s a pretty low risk bet to get people in the same room together. My pitch to people is that you can bring your friends for an hour, see what it’s about, and if it’s a waste of your time, then it’s only an hour. Ask for feedback and have them share the experience with others. It takes those influencers (not alone by title), that are connected in those silos to participate, however, if there aren’t the next steps then its hard for people to stay engaged.

What’s your vision for Bloomington-Normal’s entrepreneurial, startup, and small business future?
It’s about the individuals. Hopefully the organizations can empower the individuals. It’s the groups with the network and resources saying, “what do you need?” 

What is the place you wish you could copy and paste or that has great examples to follow?
The density of Chicago is great. The sheer amount of things and variety of ways that people can engage there is incredible. Dallas, Indy and Cedar Rapids;  all of these places follow a similar formula… it’s individuals, not organizations that are building up groups, events, and then scale it once there’s a proof of concept.

What do you find most exciting about the current entrepreneurial scene?
The potential. There’s already some successes, some momentum. It will improve even more with an infusion of bodies and energy.

Hear more conversations like this one from Doan at TEDxNormal on October 22nd at the Normal Theater.