Posts tagged: entrepreneur

Discovering the Future of the Chicago News Scene With Brad Flora

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By , November 20, 2009 1:28 pm
Crowdsourcing News with Brad Flora

Crowdsourcing News with Brad Flora

With all the tumultuous change occurring in news media, Chicago appears to find its own unique way to challenge the status quo. Seeing sites such as the Windy Citizen and Chicago Now, it is quite evident that our city is close to the forefront of the future format of news and information. Funsherpa sits down with the brains behind the Windy Citizen, Brad Flora, Princeton and Northwestern alum, Chicago resident, and local entrepreneur. In this feature we learn about the local startup scene, and the future of news from the eyes of the Windy Citizen.

F: How has the concept of the Windy Citizen evolved over time?

B: The Windy Citizen has always been about helping Chicagoans find new things that you otherwise wouldn’t know about. We started with doing editorials through a team of bloggers who would post links and write short articles. We’ve since moved to letting our readers post the links and vote them up and down. We’ve gone from an editorial model to a crowd-sourced model!

F: Anything surprising you’ve discovered about local Chicagoans through the site?

B: I think we tapped into a well of city pride and found there’s a whole scene of people who follow what’s going on in the city – so it has really been fun to see that and provide these people with a forum to share their knowledge.

F: What’s your take on entrepreneurship in the Windy City?

B: There are a good number of people doing interesting things. The environment in Chicago is quite difficult. Chicago is known to be a good place to bootstrap a business. As you get to know people who are starting projects or new ventures, it is pretty rare to find someone who has successfully raised money or even intends to raise money. A lot of cool stuff is happening, but the approach to how you fund and finance that is very different from a lot of other cities.

F: Has there been a time when you just wanted to give up? How’d you resolve that?

B: There are quite a few times that I’ve wanted to give up. I’ve been working on the Windy Citizen for about a year and a half and for the first year or so I wasn’t making any money – so that was a very difficult time for me. It is very easy to get discouraged when you are creating something that you think is cool but nobody else is seeing it. There was a time when the content and design was always changing and I am very grateful to my friends and contributors who have stuck with the Citizen. The thing that really kept me going was finding a couple of people who supported me in developing the concept.

F: Any advice you’d like to share with entrepreneurs?

B: Do your homework. Figure out what you want to do and find the market opportunity. You don’t want to be caught flat footed and not know what your audience really wants!

F: What have you learned from starting up a local media site?

B: One of them is that the market opportunity is a lot smaller than most people think. A lot of people don’t want to think about geography. Their interest is in national stories and national news. Having a population of three million people in a city, doesn’t mean you have a market opportunity of three million people – the audience for us is a bit smaller. At the same time though our audience cares a lot more about what’s going on in the city. It is a smaller market, but we cater to people who are more passionate about things going on locally.

F: With all the talk about new media taking over traditional print, how do you think papers like the Tribune will survive in the midst of bloggers, 24×7 online news sites?

B: Well, The Tribune Company is being very aggressive in the market. They have a Chicago Now site which they’ve turned into a morning radio show. They’ve scooped up a lot of people and are trying to do something interesting.

My expectation is that newspapers will continue trimming costs up to the point they can be profitable. We’ll see smaller more nimble newspapers that may even be published a bit less but they will be profitable.

F: Who are your favorite columnists? What do you like about them?

B: I really enjoy Robert Feder from the Vocalo website. He was the media critic for the Sun Times for 20 years and has now come back to write. His stuff is excellent. Also, I enjoy reading Eric Zorn’s columns. He’s not always covered stuff I’m super interested in, but I’ve really enjoyed what he does. He’s the best and most consistent columnist. John Kass is great too, because he really goes after the creeps.

F: How do you cope with Chicago winters?

B: Working from home is a big start. Its nice when you don’t have to go out in the snow. Second I have a trusty overcoat that I bought in Pittsburg years ago. Between the two of those, I seem to manage them quite well.

F: Can you share with us some of your favorite places to grab a drink in Chicago?

B: I live in Old town. I love going to the Old Town Ale House. At first I was creeped out by the creepy paintings on the walls. I am still creeped out by it. But its got an atmosphere!

Secrets of the Empanada, all the way from Colombia

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By , August 3, 2009 8:00 am

Carlos Escalantes offers his empanadas

Carlos Escalantes offers his ingenious empanadas

Who doesn’t love empanadas?  Certainly not someone who has discovered Lito’s Empanadas, a well-kept secret on Clark St. Empanada-expert Carlos Escalante earned his degree in business administration in Colombia and worked as a plant manager in Ohio before launching Lito’s two years ago.  He took the time to talk with Funsherpa about South American food, Colombian slang, and, of course, his unusual empanadas...

F: What is about an empanada? Why did you decide to build a business around it?

Well I’m from Colombia, where empanadas are really popular. I’ve always wanted to have my own business and knew empanadas could be a good idea. When I moved here I didn’t have enough money; I didn’t have the credit history to just apply for a loan. Around 2006 I started making them for my wife’s family – she’s from Wisconsin – and for my friends here. People liked them, so one day we said, “Why don’t we open an empanada place?” It took me seven years, but we finally opened in 2007.

An Awesome Empanada

An Awesome Empanada

F: What do you think of Chicago’s South American cuisine?

I’ve been to a couple of Colombian places like Las Tablas, and they are really good! But there wasn’t a take-out place like this in Chicago-

F: What is your favorite empanada?

That’s a tough one: I would have to choose between a few. We just have ten, but I love the Hawaiian one.

(We do too.)

F: If you could add another empanada to the menu of ten, what would it be?

I’m actually working on it right now!  I want to add one with shrimp and another with chorizo. There are so many things you can put in an empanada-

F: You said empanadas are popular in Colombia – are they usually associated with a particular meal? Or can they eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? (We hope so)

Where I come from, they are really popular for breakfast.  Some places are only open from 6am until 8 or 9 when they sell out, and then they are done for the day. That’s just for breakfast.

It’s not popular for lunch. Later in the day, that’s when people start looking for empanadas…

F: What is the most empanadas you’ve seen anyone eat in one sitting?


(Can’t say we blame them)

F: What other cuisine do you enjoy around Chicago?

I love hamburgers – that’s my favorite American dish. I’m happy at any place that has hamburgers.

F: We heard you previously worked in the auto industry – what made you decide to open a restaurant?

I was the plant manager for an auto-parts plant for five years: I started in Toledo, Ohio back in 2000. The owner decided to open a shop here in Chicago, and he gave me the opportunity to move here and be plant manager. So yeah, I was doing something totally different.

F: Why did you decide to move from Colombia to Chicago?

I finished a degree in business administration in Colombia in December 1999, and I had a friend living in Toledo, Ohio. I didn’t have many options in my country, so he said, “Well, why don’t you come up here and see what you can find?” I came to Toledo and ten days later met the owner of the auto-parts supplier in church. At the time, he was just looking for someone to sweep the floors, take the garbage out, load and unload trucks – I eventually showed him I could help manage people and assembly lines.

A year later he decided to expand  to Chicago. By that time, I was bored, frustrated, and thinking of going back to Colombia. Toledo, Ohio is a really small town with not many things to do.  So it was good timing when he said, “Well do you want to move to Chicago?”

F: Why did you choose to stay in Chicago and start a business here?

I love this city. They have everything here, and it’s not that expensive to live in, if you’re smart. I don’t complain about the winters much; it’s nice having four seasons – you just have to enjoy them.

F: What is your favorite Colombian Slang expression?

‘Tenaz’ – I don’t even think it’s in the dictionary, but we use it a lot in Colombia. When you’ve been in a tough situation, you say, “Tenaz!”

F: What is the rough English translation of “tenaz”?

When you say, “Really?!” [incredulously]

F: What is the future of Lito’s Empanadas? Any expansion plans?

Yeah!  When we decided we wanted to open, the first step was just to find a place. We found a place; we signed a lease; and that means you have to do it. To open the shop was really tough; to keep it running – that’s another thing. Now that it’s running, I have to go and find the next one…

Babysitting, Opera-singing Entrepreneur

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By , July 22, 2009 8:00 am

Gensmilin'Genevieve Thiers has a head full of ideas and a voice to match. Gen moved to Chicago seven years ago to attend Northwestern University’s prestigious School of Music. At the same time, she was busy launching the country’s premier caregiving website, Since settling in Chicago, Genevieve has built Sittercity from the ground up and started an opera company on the side for good measure. In her spare time, Gen sleeps, reads, and explores Chicago…

F: You are a native of Philadelphia, and you attended college in Boston. What made you decide to base your business here in Chicago?

A few things: I love Chicago’s location—the center of the country. You can get anywhere without having to face a 7-hour flight. And it’s a gorgeous city! So clean, with lots of tall buildings. Second, my husband is from this area and wanted to get reacquainted as an adult. But the final reason is that – in addition to being a CEO – I am also a trained opera singer. I wanted to attend Northwestern University’s School of Opera night program from 2002-2004. Of all the opera schools I considered, it was the best choice.

F: Sittercity has markets in cities across the country: what characterizes Chicago in the care-taking industry?

Chicago was not different from other markets in that it desperately needed Sittercity! What was different was how the locals approached care. More families tended to hire family members: it’s a Midwestern trait. But I think when they saw Sittercity was literally safer than hiring the girl-next-door, that quickly changed. In fact I’ve seen grandparents in this area on our site to find a sitter, so that they do not have to be the primary caregiver!

F: In your opinion, what are the most kid-friendly neighborhoods in Chicago?

I think that Glencoe, Wilmette, Skokie, and Highland Park are lovely. There’s also some great areas downtown: Southport in Wrigleyville is a great place to raise kids. The great thing about Chicago is that it’s tough to find a not-so-nice place to live.

F: Babysitting – full-time or on the side – is a long-standing and respected line of work. How do you recommend parents and sitters use babysitting as a way to supplement their lifestyle?

I think babysitting and nannying should be considered full-time careers in the United States, and right now, that is not the case. In the UK it’s perfectly normal to have a career as a nanny: there are even degrees that support it. Here, it’s considered something you do on the side – a means to an end. I’d like to change that…  I know a lot of care providers who would like to feel that their work counts as a full-time career.

F: Did you ever think childcare might become your career?

No… but, thinking back, I am not too surprised it became mine! I am the oldest of seven kids and have clocked over 2500 babysitting jobs in my life. I used to reassure 2-3 moms a day that they should go out and have fun—at the age of 16! So it’s very natural that this would end up being my career. And I even sing! I’ve played both Mary Poppins and Maria in The Sound of Music.

F: What was your funniest babysitting experience as a kid or as a sitter?

M brother, sister, and I were once all booked for the same job. The mom was nervous none of us would come and so triple-booked it to be sure!

F: You’ve also opened up the Chicago opera industry by starting Operamoda, an opera company featuring innovative operas and young performers. How receptive have Chicagoans been to a revamped opera company, since opera is such a selective taste in the first place?

OperaModa’s mission is to support young emerging opera singers and American opera. Chicago seems to love the combination. We just finished a show with the Elgin Opera, actually—Menotti’s The Telephone. It was so delightful – I loved every minute of it! The Telephone was also performed by Daniel Peretto—a hyper-talented young Chicago baritone—and directed by Amy Hutchison from the Lyric Opera. I love that I’m able to sing in a great opera company in Chicago without having to travel the globe.

F: What is your favorite modern opera?

I adore Menotti’s The Telephone, but I’ve also loved playing Dorine in Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe and Beth in Mark Adamo’s Little Women.

F: What are your favorite performance venues around Chicago?

The Athenaeum is lovely, but also rather expensive. The Harris Center here is phenomenal. It’s my dream to perform there, and also at some point on the stage of Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier. They do stunning work.

F: Was it always opera? When did opera enter the scene?

I’ve sung since the age of 11; my twin sister played piano. We were a bit like the Von Trapp family—many of us are musical. I went abroad my junior year of college to Oxford University, and it was there that I fell in love with opera. Before that, I had mostly done musicals: The Secret Garden, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Fiddler on the Roof… But then I sang in a production of Carmen, and it was never the same. There’s something so sophisticated and complex about the opera sound. It’s like tasting fine wine after drinking wine coolers: there’s no going back.

F: What was it like going back to school in a new city? And music school, no less?

Wonderful! I was ready for a change. I launched in Boston at the start of the Internet boom. It was very exciting to see how fast it caught on. But I wanted to sing opera too, so Chicago seemed like the perfect place—centrally-located with a great music school and, as a bonus, my husband Dan knew it well and was able to tour me around. It was love at first sight! The funny thing really was juggling my opera schedule with my business career. One time I had a situation where I sang Act 1 of an opera (in a nun costume, no less), changed into a suit to go downtown for a meeting, and dashed back in time to sing Act 3. It was hilarious.

F: What would you say Evanston is like relative to Chicago?

Quieter…I attended opera school there, and so drove back and forth for two years between Sittercity’s office downtown and Evanston. I think Evanston is lovely, but I’m a city girl. You can’t beat tall buildings, bright lights and a beach.

Old Town entreprenuer avoids talking about the Grey’s Anatomy season finale

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By , May 15, 2009 8:51 am

Florida native, Loyola law school graduate, now entrepreneur Billy Brewster spills the beans on what it is like to jump off a cliff and be your own boss. A big fan of living in Old Town, Billy actually designed his pad to highlight his view of Cabrini Green – nothing like living it up in the neighborhood. A huge Cubs fan, you can probably find him hanging out in Wrigley Field on most days, or whacking gophers in the Lincoln Park Golf Course. When not taking it pretty easy, you will find Billy putting together the smoothest, cleanest, and straightest floors – he turns pumice rock into marble.

Pounding a brewsky with Billy

Pounding a brewsky with Billy

 Learning more about the king of flooring, the Cubs, and the Bulls

 I decided to skip practicing law and become an entrepreneur because there is nothing like running a business.

If I were to practice law, I would be in personal injury, and sue pretty much everyone.

Biggest challenge with starting a business is getting it off the ground. It’s like a train, getting it running takes a lot of energy but keeping it running requires maintenance.

One thing I learned about floors that I bet no one else thinks about is the cost of doing the job properly.

What is it like to sniff the bonding glue? Not all it’s cracked up to be. Did you see heaven? Was that heaven? I don’t know…I forgot…Did I sniff too much…Where am I?

My pet peeve about floors is cutting corners. If I ever catch someone doing it, I will fire them or give them my card and tell them to call when they want the job done correctly.

The White Sox are old and slow and the Cubs have no bullpen. Nevertheless, the Cubs are better because of Mike Fontenot and Chad Fox.

I think the Bulls are not as good as the series was. Derrick Rose is one of the few guys that lives up to the hype. Kevin Garnett sucks at life.

 Old Town gems and some other things about Chicago.

I live in Old Town because of Sully’s Tavern. My view of the city reminds me of opportunity. 

Best place to play hoops: Stoney Island Park. Worst place to play hoops: Anywhere I am playing.

If testosterone flowed freely Wrigleyville would be the place to go. But Manny Ramirez cornered the market for it.

Top things to do in Old Town: Visit Uncle Julio’s for a “plato gordo.” Follow that up by dropping by Sully’s Tavern to eat the Veggie Pizza. Travel to Wells and hit up Fireplace Inn. Then get real at Old Town Ale House. 

My running route usually involves me going around the block and stopping frequently.

You can find the best floors (in Chicago) at the bleachers in Wrigley Field…perfect slack to hold people up and still make enough noise to instill fear into any visiting team…and of course, Floor Coverings International.

Best place to do a keg stand and not break your neck anywhere where there is a keg and someone you trust.

I like fried chicken. Especially from KFC.

If tourists weren’t so foolish, they would go to Wrigley and avoid “standing room only” tickets like the plague.

My dream meal would be anything at Charlie Trotter’s.

I can find everything at 900 N. Michigan.

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