IVCA Profile: Linda Darragh, Recipient of the 2021 Richard J. Daley Award at the upcoming IVCA Awards Dinner

November 24, 2021

It’s that time of year, to reflect back upon the many successes and honor those who have worked toward that success. Kirkland & Ellis LLP will present the annual IVCA Awards Dinner, taking place on Monday, December 6th, 2021, starting at 5:30pm at the Four Seasons in Chicago. The honors conferred will include the Venture Capital Portfolio Company of the Year, the Private Equity Portfolio Company of the Year, the Fellows Award and Richard J. Daley Award.
The Richard J. Daley – which acknowledges a single individual who has given direct and extraordinary support to the State of Illinois by participating in or being an advocate for the Venture Capital and Private Equity industries – will be presented to Linda Darragh, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University Emerita, most recently having served as the Larry Levy Executive Director of the Kellogg Innovation & Entrepreneur Initiative.
Linda Darragh received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the Queen’s University of Ontario, and her Masters of Science from the University of Toronto. She began her career at the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Department, and moved to Chicago to work on the city staff in 1983. She served as President of EconoTech in her next tenure, and moved to Vice President of the Woman’s Business Development Center in the late 1980s.She began as a Adjunct at the Kellogg School in 1999, and became an Associate Clinical Professor of Entrepreneurship in 2003. In 2005, she was named Director of Entrepreneurial Programs, Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship, Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, before returning to the Kellogg School.
Ms. Darragh is a co-founder and current Board member of Impact Engine, a Venture Capital and Private Equity investment firm focused on growing companies that generate positive outcomes in education, health, economic empowerment, and environmental sustainability. She has been a long-time board member of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center/1871 and a board member for the Golden Apple Foundation and Injustice Watch.
Among her many honors are the Entrepreneurial Champion Award through the 1871/Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, Chicago ’50 on Fire’ by Chicago Inno, an acknowledged Financial Services Advocate for Illinois and the Midwest by the U.S. Small Business Administration and a three-time acknowledgement in the Chicago Sun-Times ‘Top 100 People Influencing Technology in Chicago.'
In honoring Ms. Darragh, former Chair of the IVCA Board Ellen Carnahan said, “Linda Darragh's professional and volunteer experience has focused on enhancing entrepreneurship in Chicago for three decades … She very recently retired as the Larry Levy Executive Director of the Kellogg Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, one of four strategic initiatives at Kellogg. In this capacity, Darragh has updated and enhanced the curriculum, expanded the faculty and increased engagement opportunities for students and alumni.”
The IVCA got the opportunity to talk to Linda Darragh about her incredible and influential career, in the following Q&A profile.
IVCA: As a leader in teaching principles of entrepreneurial innovation, what has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the last ten years?
Linda Darragh: Entrepreneurship pedagogy has completely changed in the last decade. When I first taught at Kellogg in the early ’00’s, we taught students how to create a business plan. In ten weeks, students were to form a team, come up with an idea, develop a plan that included detailed financial projections and then create a pitch.
In the past, there was the assumption that an early stage business was the same as an established corporation. Now we encourage students to focus on customer discovery to uncover the ‘job to be done’ before testing a solution.
IVCA: As a founder and board member of Impact Engine, what principles from your experience in academia was most conducive to creating the firm’s success?
Darragh: This is an example of ‘practice what you preach.’ Around 2010, I was teaching social entrepreneurship at Booth and my colleague, Jamie Jones, was teaching similar courses at Kellogg. We both saw the growing interest among students to start for-profit social impact businesses. At the same time, we were meeting with local investors and entrepreneurs who were very interested in investing in social impact businesses.
The problem was that neither group knew how to find each other. So, we organized the first Impact Investment conference in 2011 to test and learn more about engagement between these two groups. A few months later, we launched Impact Engine as an accelerator. Now, Impact Engine has grown into an ‘impactful’ Venture Capital and Private Equity firm investing in companies and funds that align financial and social returns led by Jessica Droste Yagan and her incredible team.
IVCA: Which companies have you seen up close from concept/idea to great success?  What common characteristics did you see in them that were indicators of that future success?
Darragh: When I first meet a student who wants to start a business, I am excited when I hear that the student has experience in the industry, has shown resourcefulness already and has the ability to ‘sell’ me on their vision.
Having said that, here are four that stand out ….
Four Kites is a local example. When Matt Elenjickal first came to my office, he knew the problem he wanted to solve in the trucking industry … he both knew the industry and at that moment a new regulation could change a key aspect of this industry. He was at Kellogg to build this business by leveraging the entrepreneurial faculty and the courses. He has now raised over $200M and proved himself as a great leader with high impact and low ego.
Florence Frech and Camillo Martinez came to Kellogg from Latin America determined to adapt American retail loyalty programs for the Colombian market. The team leveraged courses in customer discovery and testing customer acquisition to learn about the issues facing by both consumers and retailers. Their patience and diligence has resulted in Leal being the largest and fastest growing loyalty network in Colombia and Central America with over 700 participating brands.
Blair Pircon was a K-12 education market analyst at Robert W. Baird before coming to Kellogg. She was perplexed with the depth of issues and lack of technology in this sector. At Kellogg, she founded The Grade Network that connects K-12 teachers with qualified teaching assistants who provide on-demand grading services. While her first customers were the teachers, she learned how to sell to principals and then districts. She sold the company to Marco Learning in 2021.
Brian Hill of Edovo was another student who immediately stood out. His father had worked in prisons and as a JD/MBA student, Brian had worked in the Cook County jail. Once again, he knew the industry and identified a problem that focused on educating inmates. It was a problem with unique technical issues and a need to incentivize behavior. Edovo now serves prisons all over the nation with the mission ‘to help everyone affected by incarceration build better lives.’
IVCA: In your perspective, do you agree that individual talent is the greatest driver of achievement? And what characteristics are common in that talent from your point of view?
Darragh: Passion is always cited as a key driver to overcome all the obstacles an entrepreneur faces while growing a business. Having said that, entrepreneurs also need to identify and analyze all the stakeholders that can impact a business. This takes curiosity, the ability to network and strong analytical skills.
IVCA: You’ve had years of experience working with women and men who were launching businesses.  What … if any … characteristics of a woman’s approach to investment do you believe can be more advantageous in a competitive market?
Darragh: One of the key metrics in analyzing an investment is customer acquisition costs and evolving to long term value. This metric is based on the ability to truly understand your customer. I have seen women entrepreneurs have a greater level of empathy that propels sales and retains customers.
IVCA: As our social and economic world evolves, it seems that each year the VC and PE industries face the challenge of creating diversity in their ranks. As someone who has seen this evolution up close, what advice would you give these institutions for this outreach?
Darragh: Hiring people is hard and it takes time. When employers are already pressed for time, it is easy to reach out to an existing network or review resumes that indicate a well-known career path. But, what if we look beyond the resume to the unique experiences, skills and perspectives a person can bring to an organization. There are new entrepreneurs pioneering this approach … and hopefully the VC and PE industries will have the foresight to adopt these new methodologies.
IVCA: As the 2021 recipient of the Richard J. Daley Award, what does it mean to you personally to be recognized by your peers in the Venture Capital and Private Equity industries?
Darragh: I am overwhelmed and humbled. This award is a result of all the people in the IVCA and the larger Chicago community that have worked together over the years to launch and nurture entrepreneurs and elevate the Chicago entrepreneurial ecosystem. I feel honored to be part of this group that has catalyzed innovation.
Kirkand & Ellis LLP presents The 2021 IVCA Awards Dinner on Monday, December 6th, 2021, beginning at 5:30pm, at The Four Seasons, 120 East Delaware, Chicago. For more information, including tickets, click here.