American Success Story

September 12, 2017

From janitor to real estate mogul to TV show host, Sean Conlon (SNL ’16) details his journey to success

There is a compilation post on Instagram containing pictures of Sean Conlon (SNL ’16). Headshot_USEOne photo is of him in Ireland, a week before he immigrated to the United States in 1990, staring at the camera with a look of confidence and determination. Another shows him outside of a Chicago apartment building wearing paint-splattered pants and a Bears shirt, standing on top of a dumpster pushing down trash. The last picture is a publicity shot taken at the 2017 Winter Television Critics Awards, where he spoke to a crowd of hundreds about CNBC’s hit show “The Deed: Chicago,” which he hosts.

Raised in the small village of Rathangan in County Kildare, Ireland, Conlon grew up reading as much as he could. “The local library eventually had a chat with my mother. They said, ‘He’s reading too many books and he’s writing to the National Library asking for more books,’” Conlon laughs. “Most of my inspiration came from books.”

In his late teens, Conlon studied at the Dublin Institute of Technology, but financial necessities forced him out after a year. He moved to London and worked for Lehman Brothers, which was one of the largest global banks at the time. “That all sounds very easy, but I probably applied to 50 places before I got a job at Lehman, and it was a very low-level, back-office job,” Conlon remembers. When he was 20 years old, he decided to immigrate to the United States.

“In a lot of the world, we truly believe America is a frame of mind, not a place, and you can achieve extraordinary things even if you’re ordinary,” he says. After Conlon arrived in Chicago, he worked as a janitor in an Andersonville apartment building. And while he says he was exhilarated by so much possibility, he struggled. “I was incredibly lonely. I was thousands of miles away from my family and everything that I ever knew, and I was doing a job that I didn’t like,” he says. “The only thing that kept me going was my drive, that someday I could be something and change my parents’ lives and do things for them that they never got to do.”

That drive pushed Conlon to enroll in evening classes to acquire his real estate license. For a while, he worked all day as a janitor and sold real estate at night, working an estimated 100 hours a week. “I sold homes because I wasn’t initially qualified to do anything else, and I thought, ‘Well, if I work harder than anyone else, there’s no limit on what I can be as a real estate broker.’ And it was true.”

In 1993, Conlon joined a prominent real estate firm in Chicago, and in a remarkably short amount of time, he became one of the top real estate brokers in North America. In the early 2000s, he opened his highly successful company, Conlon & Co., a real estate merchant bank. “There’s no question that the company is a product of my philosophy, which is there’s no magic, it’s just really hard work,” Conlon says. “You have to be able to get knocked down and get back up.”

After one of his mentors, Chicago Alderman Ed Burke (LAS ’65, JD ’68), encouraged him to enroll at DePaul to get his bachelor’s degree, Conlon began taking classes at SNL in the early 2010s. He admits that it took a while to get used to learning again and to grasp academic writing. But with the guidance of Susanne Dumbleton, professor emeritus and former dean of SNL, and Don Opitz (CSH ’91), associate dean and associate professor, he thrived. “The learning that I was doing there was applicable to the real world,” he says. “What I liked in the end was that so many things were practical applications.” Conlon is very proud of earning his degree in 2016 and credits his sister, Fiona Conlon, for helping him through the program. “She pushed and drove me. Fiona kept me totally focused on DePaul. I wouldn’t have finished the program without her.”

Almost immediately after graduating from DePaul, Conlon started filming CNBC’s television show “The Deed: Chicago.” As the host of the Chicago episodes, Conlon helps people who get into distressing real estate deals by lending them his own money and helping them fix the deal. “It’s not like those complete makeover shows. There’s a dark, tough side to it,” he explains. “These are real people who get into a real problem and I go and help them. I’m more about the people than the real estate. You can apply all the logic to location, but when you’re doing a property rehab or flip, it’s the people.” “The Deed: Chicago” premiered in March.

Despite his tremendous accomplishments and success, and all by age 47, Conlon says he has not yet achieved his ultimate dream: to run his wildlife foundation with Fiona, and aid animal welfare throughout the world. “I’m going to go save dogs,” he says. “Someday, when I get through all of this stuff and get to my next level, that’s what I’ll do. That’s the plan.”


Power Couple

May 17, 2017

Meet the DePaul filmmaking duo shaking things up in the Middle East

Hamzah JamjoIMG_2449om (CDM ’06, MFA ’12) and Jacquelyn (Chenger) Jamjoom (CDM ’10) fell in love with DePaul—and then with each other. Both describe their first steps on campus in glowing terms. Hamzah, originally from Saudi Arabia, had been studying engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, but the emphasis on theoretical concepts didn’t satisfy his yearning for hands-on work. In DePaul’s computer graphics and animation program, Hamzah found the excitement he’d been seeking. Meanwhile, Jacquelyn enrolled in the College of Communication to pursue radio, television and film, only to transfer to CDM’s nascent film program as soon as it launched.

By that point, Hamzah was pursuing an MFA in digital cinema. As part of his graduate duties, he led an editing workshop for the Introduction to Production course. “Jacquelyn was one of the only students to show up,” he remembers, “and she was the only one paying attention!” Soon, the two budding filmmakers were collaborating on projects. It was a heady time as students and faculty alike worked to shape the film program. “Everyone was desperate to learn,” Hamzah says. “We were very involved with our own development and growth.”

Hamzah’s studies took a surprising turn when he received an opportunity to work on the big-budget IMAX film “Arabia.” The movie was shot over four years, and Hamzah’s responsibilities grew over that time. But DePaul never asked him to take a leave of absence or drop out of the program. Hamzah remains grateful to DePaul for helping to facilitate that experience. “My advisors and professors understood that it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Hamzah says. “It truly helped me to become a better filmmaker.”

Today, Jacquelyn and Hamzah, along with adjunct faculty member Patrick Wimp (CDM MFA ’09), run Digital Hydra, a Chicago-based film production company. “At the beginning, we had a lot of ideas and were really excited, but we had to figure out how to fulfill certain roles to make it work from a business perspective,” Jacquelyn says diplomatically. Hamzah gets straight to the point: “Patrick and I are artistic and creative and disorganized and don’t know how to manage our time; Jacquelyn keeps us in check, on budget and on task.” Fittingly, Jacquelyn’s title is director of operations/executive producer, while Hamzah and Patrick are co-owners/creative directors.

Digital Hydra’s varied projects include commercials for WGN, Sprint, Facebook, McDonald’s and HBO, as well as the television series “Dine and Dash” and “Wa Mahyaya.” The latter, a philosophical show that explored the ego in everyday life, was the third most-watched series in the Middle East in 2015. Now, the founders are pursuing their passion for narrative projects; Hamzah is creating a sci-fi show called “Balance,” while Jacquelyn is working on a pilot, “Public Housing Unit.”

Working together can be challenging at times, in part due to long hours and the difficulty of separating home life from career ambition. “When you have big dreams and you take your work as seriously as we do, it’s really hard to let go, even at home,” Jacquelyn says, adding that she and Hamzah worked side by side on their laptops until 2 a.m. the night before. “Plus, we’re getting paid out of the same pot,” Hamzah notes. “That can be scary at times.”

On the other hand, they are thrilled to be able to do what they love together. “It feels like things started clicking this past year, and that time investment we’ve made has really paid off,” Jacquelyn says.

“It’s a great feeling to know that we’re getting to the point where we can help shape the next generation of storytelling.”

In particular, the couple is focused on disrupting the status quo. “As much as we want to make amazing, action-packed, entertaining films, we also feel an obligation to tell stories that will resonate with people who don’t always feel that they’re being represented,” Jacquelyn says. “We’re trying to build a more inclusive future.” It’s a tall order, but the Jamjooms are optimistic. “A show can be exciting and entertaining but still tell a very deep message,” Hamzah says. “We hope our future shows impact the world in a positive way and change people for the better.”


Ms. Maximizer

January 20, 2017

Meet an alumna whose idea of success is helping others reach their full potential.

074monika-2Certified executive coach Monika Black (CSH PhD ’12) is the type of person who hears “yes” when others hear “no.” Where most people see obstacles, she sees opportunities and options. This fearless tenacity and optimism, not to mention a tough-as-nails work ethic, laid the foundation for Black’s entrepreneurial career path and gave her the gumption to achieve three advanced degrees. Black is the co-founder of TandemSpring, a consulting firm that helps organizations and their employees leverage their strengths, as well as chief strategy officer at DyMynd, which empowers women to become financially savvy. Both companies use strengths-based assessments to guide clients in meeting their personal and professional goals.

Black is a maximizer—it’s her primary strength, and it shows in everything she does. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she was discouraged from majoring in pre-med because she was a standout track star in the high jump. “They told me it was going to be really difficult for me to manage everything,” she remembers. Black didn’t even blink. Not only did she excel in her classes—including her favorite course, organic chemistry—but also she was a four-time All-American, three-time track-and-field captain and winner of the Big Ten Medal of Honor for excellence on and off the field. Black remembers fans complaining that she didn’t run a victory lap after winning her event at the Prefontaine Classic at the University of Oregon because, true to form, she was sitting on the track writing a paper.

“I love to work, and I love to work hard,” Black says. She regularly puts in 10- to 12-hour days, but it’s clear that this effort brings her joy, whether she’s leading a workshop, coaching a client one on one or aligning an organization’s strategies with its stated goals. “Helping people reach their full potential in life—that’s what motivates me,” she says.

As a doctoral student in DePaul’s community psychology program in the College of Science and Health, Black found the tools to articulate her vision: “I’m always trying to understand the research and the data, but I also want to know, ‘What do those numbers mean for the people actually living that experience?’” She uses this ecological framework to help her clients recognize the overlapping influence of personal, environmental and social factors on their dreams, abilities and achievements.

Listening is also key. Black strives to listen beyond the words to hear the emotional tenor or ellipses in her clients’ stories. As they share their experiences with Black, they often come to a moment of clarity. “One widow realized she’d been told that ‘money isn’t for women’ her entire life, and now that’s an emotional obstacle preventing her from managing her family’s money,” Black says. “Another woman said she prefers credit unions to traditional financial institutions because the latter have never taken her seriously as an individual of high net worth.”

Black stresses that women of any means have the capability to be the CEO or CFO of their own lives, in part, by aligning their values with their financial plan. “That doesn’t have to be something you put on hold until you make money,” Black notes. As a case in point, she serves on the advisory board for The Theatre School at DePaul and also teaches in both the psychology department and the peace, justice and conflict studies department. Unsurprisingly, she encourages her students to match their strengths to their passions. “We can’t keep telling our students, ‘not yet,’” she says. “I don’t think they should wait to start making an impact in areas that matter to them.”


Alumna entrepreneur finds success at the intersection of chemistry and law

March 2, 2016

When Katherine Kim (CSH MS ’97, JD ’04) enrolled in the Master of Science in chemistry program at DePaul, she never imagined that one day she would be the founder of a boutique law office—or that her foundation in chemistry would prKatherine1120-075high resove instrumental to her company’s success. As principal of Spark IP Law, Katherine assists start-ups with patent and trademark law, as well as IP and business strategy. “We not only mentor start-ups, but we also invest in and review start-ups for investors,” she says. “We’re involved in all stages—that’s what makes us unique.”

Katherine’s path to entrepreneurship included stops at a biotech start-up, a large pharmaceutical company and a law firm focused on litigation. “After I graduated from DePaul, I never had a problem finding a job because not only did I have experience working with the various analytical instruments used in the pharmaceutical field, but also I had co-authored multiple publications,” Katherine explains. She recalls working closely with Professor Gregory Kharas in the polymer organic chemistry lab and publishing extensively in that area of study. This experience paid off when a California-based start-up hired Katherine as a polymer chemist. When the company went under, Katherine found work as an analytical chemist and was on track to become a research scientist in organic chemistry, but she decided to return to school for a second advanced degree.

Back at DePaul, Katherine joined a cohort of students studying patent law. Even though she missed the labs and research projects that played such a central role in her first program at DePaul, Katherine followed through on law school and soon found herself working grueling hours as a novice attorney. “I decided I didn’t like law at all,” she admits. “But somebody gave me a small client, I helped them out, and I enjoyed it so much that I started trying to get other clients.” This shift ultimately allowed Katherine to find a career at the intersection of her dual degrees.

Today, Spark IP Law provides clients with various solutions paired with personal attention that smaller start-ups often need and appreciate. “It’s more than just filing patents for people,” she asserts. In fact, Spark IP Law recently expanded to include a technical advisor and a licensing expert to ensure it remains a one-stop shop for all of a start-ups business and law needs. “I’m personally involved with the start-up world at the beginning and at the end, so my strategies for these smaller companies are different based on my own experiences,” Katherine says. “Spark IP Law is just really well-rounded and really focused on helping start-ups succeed.”

 


Alumnus backs Blue Demon Challenge

January 27, 2016

Alumnus Jack Cummins (LAS ’88, JD ’92) has offered his support of $25,000 if 450 donors make a gift during the Blue Demon Challenge on Jan. 28.

Why do you give to DePaul?

cummins headshots--12Jack: Supporting DePaul is important! Without the support of alumni, many students who
would be the first in their families to go to college wouldn’t get that opportunity. These students go on to become important contributors not only at DePaul, but in their professional lives and in the greater Chicago community. Alumni support enables DePaul to remain a positive force in the community, maintaining and improving its efforts to offer access to education to all who seek it.

You made your first gift 23 years ago. How has your perspective on giving changed since then, if at all?

Jack: I made my first gift to DePaul while I was still a law student. Back then, my goal was to give back at least what I’d been given. DePaul offered me academic and athletic scholarships as an undergraduate, and I wanted to repay the opportunities DePaul afforded me. Since then, I’ve determined that giving back should not be seen a one-time repayment, but as helping our university meet its annual need for support. I’m pleased to know that recently many alumni have supported DePaul during the Blue Demon Challenge. Making a matching gift is my way of encouraging even more fellow alumni to come together in support of our alma mater.

Why is it important for alumni to give back? What would you say to alumni who haven’t made a gift yet?

Jack: It’s time to start. Alumni may not realize that part of the reason we were able to receive scholarships or study in the library or experience the courses that changed our lives is because alumni who came before us intentionally chose to make a difference. I started by giving what I could afford. There’s no better time than now—during the Blue Demon Challenge—to make your first gift.

To make your Blue Demon Challenge gift, visit alumni.depaul.edu/bluedemonchallenge!


Alumna puts theories into practice as an advocate for physician groups

October 30, 2015
J. Mori Johnson (CMN MA ’03)

J. Mori Johnson (CMN MA ’03)

After eight years as a working professional, J. Mori Johnson (CMN MA ’03) noticed a trend. “Basically, I realized that all of my mentors had master’s degrees,” Johnson recalls. While Johnson enjoyed her work at the American Medical Association (AMA), she felt ready for new challenges and opportunities, and she knew that a master’s degree in the right field could make all the difference. When she discovered DePaul’s organizational and multicultural communication program, she almost couldn’t believe her luck. “From my very first class, I knew that I had made absolutely the right decision,” Johnson says.

Most of Johnson’s fellow students also brought work experience into the classroom, which led to energetic discussions and debates. “We all had real-life examples of both successful and failed organizational communications,” Johnson explains. “I liked that I could apply my current job to the theories we learned in class.” Although Johnson didn’t know it at the time, she also took classes that ended up being highly relevant to her current role as AMA’s director of sections and special groups. “I work with physicians trained abroad who practice in the U.S., so I use concepts from Bruno Teboul’s assimilation class nearly daily,” Johnson says. As new physicians navigate the assimilation process, Johnson provides resources and tools to help them adjust to a new culture without sacrificing their own. Additionally, she assists their colleagues in understanding cultural differences on a wide range of topics, ranging from interpretations of eye contact to handling confrontation.

Johnson also oversees AMA’s minority affairs section and the GLBT advisory committee. “Each group has elected leaders with whom I work very closely, and all of the groups have a policy-making component as well,” she notes. Johnson’s efforts on behalf of physicians also cross over into patient advocacy. “We’re not only tackling GLBT physician issues but also issues that affect physicians who are treating GLBT patients,” she explains. “For example, we keep current on the latest in transgender health care, legal issues and health issues.”

Johnson’s varied responsibilities ensure that no two days are the same, but she doesn’t hesitate when asked about the best part of her job. “It’s the physicians, without a doubt,” she enthuses. “I love hearing their stories and helping them to accomplish their goals in the areas of eliminating racial and ethnic disparities in health care, raising awareness of GLBT issues and giving international graduates the tools to enter the physician pipeline.” One of her favorite initiatives connects minority physicians with minority students. Through the AMA Doctors Back to School program, students learn about careers in medicine and get the chance to meet realistic role models. “The number of underrepresented physicians in the profession is very low in relation to the patient population, so we’re working on increasing diversity,” Johnson says.

This year marks Johnson’s 19th with the AMA, and she believes DePaul directly contributed to her career progression. “Right after I graduated, the AMA posted a job for a policy analyst for women in medicine and minority affairs,” Johnson relates. “DePaul came up repeatedly in the interview. I was asked what classes I took at DePaul and what kinds of projects I worked on.” Not only was Johnson offered the position, but years later, when she applied for the director position that ultimately developed into her current role, that interviewer also zeroed in on her DePaul experiences. Apart from the title changes, Johnson says that her degree makes a real difference in how she approaches her work: “When it comes to critical thinking, analytical skills and, of course, interpersonal communication, I use lessons from my program every day.”


College of Law shaped influential disability rights attorney

July 21, 2015
Robert Mather

Robert Mather (JD ’77)

As a young, deaf law student who communicated via sign language, Robert Mather (JD ’77) faced attitudinal barriers. He wanted to become a trial attorney but encountered some resistance from lawyers and friends. “Some people thought I could not be a trial attorney because I was deaf and use sign language,” Mather remembers. “At the time, I was not sure if I could becomea trial attorney, but I felt must try. I would not accept what other people told me to be or not to be.” Relying on guidance from an adjunct professor and an experienced trial attorney, Mather and his team successfully won a mock trial. “My experience with the instructor and team members’ support proved that it was possible to become an effective trial attorney,” Mather asserts. “Deafness to me was not an issue.”

His record over the past 31 years speaks for itself. Mather has been a trial attorney in the Disability Rights Section (DRS) of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice since 1984. DRS is responsible for the enforcement of titles I, II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, and Mather was a member of the legal team that developed the regulations for titles II and III of the ADA. These regulations explore nondiscrimination, especially in state and local government services, as well as by public accommodations and in commercial facilities. “The common denominator is that I work on cases where private entities and state and local government agencies failed or refused to make changes whenever necessary to provide individuals with disabilities the same opportunities that are provided to others,” says Mather.

Among the changes he has facilitated are the removal of barriers in facilities, reasonable modifications in policies and practices, and the provision of appropriate auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication. Mather has received multiple achievement awards from the Department of Justice for his efforts and previously served as staff counsel of the U.S. Commission on Education of the Deaf, deputy general counsel of the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, and a VISTA attorney at the National Center for Law and the Deaf. “I know, after 30 years, we have witnessed a great deal of progress in disability rights in the areas of employment and public and private services,” Mather says. “But, like other federal civil rights laws, there is so much work to be done under the ADA.”

Mather credits three elements of his DePaul experience with preparing him for his future success: trial practice in a moot court, the relationships he formed with his professors and classmates, and the instruction and guidance he received in legal writing. “Professor Terrence Kiely (JD ’67), my tort instructor, called me to discuss with him how to prepare for a final exam,” Mather recalls. “He asked me if I had developed an outline yet. I asked, ‘Outline for a final exam?’” Kiely explained the importance of outlines to prevent last-minute studying, and Mather immediately took his advice. After that, there were “no last minute crams” for Mather, and that made all the difference in his studies. “DePaul prepared me for the rigors of my career in civil rights enforcement,” Mather affirms.