EO Member: Scott Issen
Company: Future Founders
Years in Business: 10 years
How long have you been a member of EO Chicago and why did you join the organization?
I’ve been a member since December 2019. I heard about the organization because I worked in the startup ecosystem for about 20 years, and the real reason that I wanted to be a part of it was to have a community of peers. So much of the work that we do at Future Founders is helping young people and identifying people who share the same passions and are at the same stage of life and business. But I didn’t really have fellow entrepreneurs or peers at the same stage when I was their age. So to be a part of an organization that not only brings together people but also gives them an opportunity to build meaningful, and what I hope to be lifelong, relationships is something that excites me about EO.
What was your first job?
Over the summer during high school, I helped move books in the library because it was under construction. I also ran some lemonade stands when I was a kid, but those weren’t long-term ventures.
Can you describe your entrepreneurial journey? Where did you start and where do you hope to go in the future?
What I’ve realized over the years is that while I didn’t self-identify as an entrepreneur, I’ve been entrepreneurial my whole life. Prior to Future Founders, I worked at the CEC, helping high-growth entrepreneurs secure clients, raise money and connect with mentors. I had direct experience working with talented, passionate people who put everything on the line every day of the week.
In 2005, I led an initiative that ended up becoming Future Founders. We would take high school students from underserved areas of Chicago and help them discover entrepreneurship and build entrepreneurial skills. I grew this at the CEC for six years. And then in 2011, a lot of things were happening. The cohesion of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Chicago is among those. At that time, we garnered a lot of support, including from the Chicago Mayor and City Council. We were recognized by the media and had a lot of corporate partnerships. Most importantly, we impacted quite a few students. But the program had more potential to grow. So we thought, let’s spin it out from the CEC. And that’s how I suddenly became an entrepreneur—when I had this opportunity to take something that I started and turn it into something sustainable.
Thinking back now, I never would have imagined the impact that Future Founders would have on the people we work with and on our students and founders—or how important it became in my life. Now, this new community exists across the country made of young, diverse, and talented entrepreneurs. That would have never existed if I didn’t take the leap. It wasn’t an intentional journey but has become a huge part of my identity.
What inspired you to start Future Founders?
In full fairness, it wasn’t my idea. Working at the CEC, we saw a lot of great, young, talented entrepreneurs who came from all over Chicago and represented many different backgrounds and industries. But the entrepreneurial community at large didn’t reflect this same diversity.
Around the same time, Motorola approached us. This was back when the Razr phone came out and became one of the best-selling phones all over the world. They loved what we were doing, helping these adult entrepreneurs, but said that they would love to focus on the next generation of innovators. So we received financial support from Motorola to get the program started and saw that there was an opportunity to inspire the next generation of youth and help foster diversity and inclusion within the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I don’t want this to sound cheesy, but I love the people with whom I get to work. I love to see true development over time, whether it’s our middle school girls growing the confidence to come up with an app-based business and pitching it in a week, or 18- to 30-year-old founders who have an idea or side hustle and turn it into a business. It’s exciting to see that the process we’ve developed has not only helped instill confidence in people to start or run a business or build entrepreneurial skills but also gives them a great network of support and lifelong friendships. I get excited knowing that people are benefitting from the community that we built and are becoming a part of it. That’s what I think my, and our, legacy will be—the people we’ve brought together and empowered and energized.
What daily challenges do you face at work?
Entrepreneurship is a subject area that is always evolving. A challenge for us is to make sure our curriculum and programming stay relevant, meaningful, and impactful for our students. We have to keep enhancing and changing it. Another challenge is finding the right mentors and volunteers. We spend a lot of time vetting people. Young entrepreneurs get taken advantage of a lot, so we try to make sure we’re connecting our entrepreneurs with actual subject-matter experts. Not just people who do or know that skill, but who have done it in an entrepreneurial way. Most importantly, we want to ensure our mentors and volunteers reflect the diversity of our students.
What is the best career advice you ever received?
I don’t know who shared this with me—and I’m definitely paraphrasing here—but it’s basically: Do something that doesn’t feel like work. Essentially, find something you’re passionate about… that you can wake up and do every day and it doesn’t feel like you’re doing something for which you should be getting paid.
What are your goals for the future of your business?
I hope to build the largest, most inclusive national communities of young entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial-minded thinkers, A=and continue empowering people with the skills they need to be successful, whether they start a business or not. If they do decide to start a business, I want to ensure they have the resources and network of support to get to that point.
I also hope to see more diversity in the entrepreneurial community. Whether that’s making sure underrepresented groups are represented or empowering women, communities of color, and immigrants to believe in themselves and pursue an entrepreneurial career.
What’s the coolest thing you’re working on right now?
I’m excited to gather our founders together for the first time in Chicago. Normally we do five to six in-person entrepreneurship retreats a year, but because of COVID, we haven’t done that for a while. So I’m excited to bring people together for community bonding.
We’re also launching a new program this spring to help high school students start revenue-generating businesses that will be a new signature offering for Chicago teens. On an EO front, I’m excited to be part of the planning team for the GSEA Nationals Competition in Chicago in March 2022
Who or what inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who take risks and invest in themselves. I would love to spend every waking moment of my life talking with entrepreneurs and other people who are solving complex or simple problems in society and building companies that they are passionate about.
Another thing is exploring. My name in some translations means “The Wanderer,” which I think is true about myself. I love to travel, explore new places, and meet new people. I love seeing new cultures. This incredible world fuels my creativity, passion, and curiosity.
If you could go back in time five years and share advice with your past self, what advice would you share?
Don’t just focus on the destination. Make sure you enjoy the journey.
What is the greatest challenge you have overcome?
Probably recognizing that at the end of the day, I would much rather put my trust in myself than depend on someone else and be beholden to their decisions, especially for my livelihood. I had a lot of confidence issues when I first started out, thinking could I ever be an entrepreneur? So a challenge has been recognizing that while there is risk in being an entrepreneur, at the end of the day, I always know when the money is going to run out or where it’s coming from. I think it’s actually riskier to put all your eggs into someone else’s basket. That realization was eye-opening but challenging to get to and accept.
What brought you to Chicago?
I’m from here—grew up in the suburbs and have lived in the city since after college.
How do you find work-life balance?
I think that, as an entrepreneur, you’re always “on” to some extent. It’s just a matter of finding that balance and opportunity to make sure you’re investing in yourself. I heard this great quote about leadership, “Leaders need to be effective, not efficient.” I think so much of it is having some kind of spiritual nourishment. I’m part of Mishkan Chicago, a progressive Jewish community, which provides me with inspiration, energy, and reflection in life. I also make time to stay healthy by working out consistently and eating right. It’s just important to spend enough time on yourself and take time to step back, reflect, and recharge.
When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up?
Lots of different things! I think a lawyer would be the first one. I’m also an aspiring game show host.
What are your favorite things to do outside of work?
Hanging with family and friends, traveling, eating, working out, and feeding my curiosity for life.
Exercise of choice?
Weight training. Never running.
What’s one thing still left on your bucket list?
Seeing all the wonders of the world.
What are you currently reading?
I spend a lot of time reading travel blogs and planning trips. One of my favorites is The Points Guy.
What’s your favorite restaurant?
Central Provisions in Portland—one of my favorite dining experiences of all time.
What is your favorite part about working in the Chicagoland area?
What is your top Chicago activity?
Taking long walks on the lakefront.
Where’s your favorite place in the world to visit?
One is Pompeii in Italy and the other is Machu Picchu.
Thank you to Scott Issen for sharing his story for our October member spotlight. The Entrepreneurs’ Organization is a global business network of more than 14,000 entrepreneurs in 198 chapters and 61 countries. EO is the catalyst that enables entrepreneurs to learn and grow from each other, leading to greater business success and an enriched personal life.
If you’re interested in becoming an EO Chicago member, check our membership requirements and submit an application to join today.