If you’re a big proponent of the phrase “our youth are our future,” then Scott Issen is a pretty important guy. As the co-founder of the Future Founders Foundation, Issen helps students in underserved areas as young as second grade explore entrepreneurship, building the skills and business plans that will lead them to successful careers as adults.
Issen began his work fostering the innovative spirit of students almost a decade ago when he worked for the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, which provides advisory service to local entrepreneurs. Tasked with figuring out how to help the next generation of entrepreneurs, he developed Future Founders, which in 2011 became an independent organization. In 2013 he was honored as “Double Chai in the Chi” by Oy!Chicago and YLD and just this last year was named 40 Under 40 by Crain’s Chicago Business
“I always joke if you told me I was going to be running a nonprofit or be an entrepreneur, I would say you’re crazy because I didn’t want to do either of those,” Issen said. “But now it’s what I see myself doing.”
Under Issen’s leadership, Future Founders has grown from a pilot program reaching 75 kids at three schools to a full-fledged organization now at 50 schools and serving 7,000 students each year through its Future Founders High School, Future Founders Connect and Lemonade Day Chicago programs.
Most recently, Future Founders revealed its College Founders program, a collaborative effort between organizations, universities, incubators and entrepreneurship assistance groups to provide higher level resources and access to college students.
Issen said the new program developed because high school students who graduated from their existing programs as well as college students from across the region were passionate about entrepreneurship but didn’t always feel their on-campus resources were giving them enough preparation for entering the real world successfully.
“What we wanted to do was leverage all the great things that are going on in Chicagoland and plug kids into things while they’re still in school so that by the time they graduate, they know the people to go to, they know the organizations to go to and they’re already immersed in the community,” Issen said.
College Founders consists of access to entrepreneurship events, trips to visit companies, networking opportunities and more, along with a fellowship program for a select cohort of students to receive further mentorship and a city-wide elevator pitch competition, which took place Monday night, Nov. 17.
Although the programs appear to focus squarely on entrepreneurship, Issen said he sees entrepreneurship as something that crosses field and industries.
“Being able to empower students to create opportunities and help them build skills is going to be key for them to be successful,” Issen said. “We’re not saying that every one of these students should become entrepreneurs, but I think what’s great is entrepreneurship offers a lot of great ways to synthesize skills that already exist and are going to be relevant for whatever you do.”
The fact that entrepreneurship is interdisciplinary is among the reasons, Issen said, that funders have been eager to support Future Founders and other innovation-focused programs and organizations.
“[Entrepreneurship] is like the new fad almost, but we have to remember our economy and country is built on entrepreneurs, all these large companies started as small business led by entrepreneurs, so I think it’s a resurgence of this energy,” he said.
Future Founders provides a multitude of volunteer opportunities for those looking to pass their energy and knowledge as business leaders on to students. Volunteers can help students build business plans, lead a skills workshop, talk on a career panel and more. Opportunities to mentor and work with college students are still in development as College Founders begins to develop and assess the students’ needs.
As for his own volunteering, Issen recently joined the board of Mishkan Chicago, the fast-growing spiritual community based predominantly on the North Side led by 2012 Double Chai in the Chi honoree Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann. After attending High Holiday services with Mishkan last year, Issen said he connected instantly with the spiritual experience it offered. On the board, he has been involved in Mishkan’s marketing and branding strategy, and also discussed how to sustain and continue developing the energy and growth it has built in the last few years.
“I feel honored to be involved in the growth of the organization,” Issen said. “I would really encourage people to just try it out once. Just like with anything, give us a chance to move you and I think you’ll be moved.”
Issen plans to channel the good press from Double Chai in the Chi and Crain’s 40 Under 40 into raising the profile of Future Founders and Mishkan, and to engage people through both.