MBA preps alumna to oversee observatory’s financial operations

December 2, 2014
Margarita Scheffel (MBA ’95)

Margarita Scheffel (MBA ’95)

For decades, Margarita Scheffel (MBA ’95) dreamed of moving to Hawaii. “The aloha spirit just resonated with me,” she says. “The way people respond to each other … it’s just a very nice, welcoming and open environment.” She’d sit with her colleagues, daydreaming during the brutal Chicago winters about how one day she’d live there. They’d laugh off her comments as idle musings, but in 2003, Scheffel did just that. She became the chief financial officer of the W. M. Keck Observatory, one of the world’s foremost observatories, located on the summit of Mauna Kea in Kamuela, on the Big Island of Hawaii. “Living in Chicago, you barely see the stars, but when you come out here, it’s just amazing,” she enthuses.

Scheffel manages the observatory’s $25 million operating budget, overseeing funding from two partner institutions—the University of California and the California Institute of Technology—as well as from NASA, the National Science Foundation and private organizations. “Compliance is a big deal,” she asserts. “We have to make sure that we’re abiding by all the restrictions of the various funds. That can get quite complex.”

To do this, Scheffel scours regulations line by line. “You identify those that you feel are relevant to what you’re doing,” she explains. “Then you ask yourself, ‘Do I have the systems in place to allow the transactions and processes to support that requirement?’ If you don’t, then you look at ways to implement new processes.” This process includes creating new systems to monitor how funds are being spent and efforts are being reported. “Then you cross your fingers and hope you did it the right way,” she laughs.

Failure to comply with regulations, no matter how obscure, may result in loss of funding, so Scheffel often turns to her colleagues for advice. “It’s difficult to do the job on your own, but when you can share what you’ve learned or hear what someone else is doing, you don’t have to make the same mistakes,” she explains.

Scheffel learned the importance of collaborating with her peers while at DePaul. “We would talk about real-life issues we were facing in our careers,” she notes. “It was interesting to be able to share our experiences and get help with them. The MBA program helped me see the value in that.” Her concentration in international studies was an unexpected benefit to her current position. “We’ve got people from different nations, and understanding the cultural aspects of management and how diversity can make an organization better has helped me,” she says. “There is value to their differences, and I use that in how I interact with them.”

When she’s mired down with an overwhelming amount of detail, Scheffel forces herself to take a deep breath. “Sometimes, I have to step back and say, ‘I’m supporting an organization that has the ability to find life in the universe—look at what you’re enabling the scientists to do,’” she says. “We’re just one small planet in the universe. It makes you think about the impact you could be having.”

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Communication degree helps alumna snag national commercial

May 6, 2014
Barley Labs

Scott Beaudry, Theresa Chu (CMN MA ’09) and Barley

Scott Beaudry and Theresa Chu (CMN MA ’09) take turns in the kitchen, baking furiously to keep up with demand for their all-natural, preservative-free dog treats. All the while, Barley, their 5-year-old lab mix, waits patiently to perform her duty as vice president of quality control. “She’s been our taste tester from the very beginning,” says Chu. “Granted, eating is one of her favorite past times so I’m not sure how discerning of a palate she has, but she loves them.” The treats come in three flavors—cheese, peanut butter and pumpkin—and each has been carefully vetted by Barley herself. “We knew she liked them when we’d give her those first trials and she ate them up immediately,” Chu recalls. “We knew we were on the right track.”

Barley Labs was born out of a desire to reduce waste. Beaudry had started home brewing and was looking for ways to recycle used barley when he stumbled upon a recipe for dog treats. After months spent painstakingly tweaking recipes, Beaudry found the perfect balance, and he and Chu started distributing dog treats to family and friends. “For us, it was all about using ingredients that people understood right off the bat,” Chu explains. “There are basically four ingredients: spent grain, egg, flour and the main flavor component. When you read it, you know exactly what’s going into your dog.”

Barley Labs treats

Barley Labs treats

By September 2012, Barley Labs was in full swing, thanks in large part to the spent grain donated by Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, N.C. Today, the company’s treats are available in 49 retail locations in seven states, as well as online at barleylabs.com and wag.com. “Barley has been a huge part of our lives,” Chu says. “It’s hard to imagine life without her, so we donate 10 cents from every bag we sell to our local shelter in Durham. This year, on the anniversary of Barley’s adoption [March 7], we donated a dollar from each bag sold on our website to PAWS Chicago.”

Chu uses many of the skills she learned at DePaul in the day-to-day operations of Barley Labs. “DePaul gave me a well-rounded view of marketing, public relations and advertising that I apply to my business,” she asserts. “Those basic, core principles that I learned at DePaul had an impact on the way we built Barley Labs.” From creating branding to publicizing it effectively, Chu credits DePaul with preparing her for the realities of running her own business. “I’m still learning every day,” she says. “I make mistakes and not everything is perfect, but at the very least having that foundation gives me the confidence to make informed decisions.”

She entered the Intuit Small Business Big Game contest to win a Super Bowl XLVIII commercial on a whim, the public-relations professional in her deeming it “silly” not to at least try. “We didn’t think we’d make it far,” she remembers. Weeks passed, and Barley Labs remained in the running, ultimately making it to the top four. While they didn’t win the Super Bowl commercial, Barley Labs received a national commercial and $25,000 for their business. “We might not have won the big prize, but it certainly still feels like we won,” Chu laughs. Thanks to the contest, Barley Labs’ sales have jumped more than 100 percent, accelerating the growth of their business five years in just a few months. “We never expected this business to be anything more than a small, local dog treat business,” she stresses. “We’re incredibly grateful.”


Building Robots, Building Community: Mike Ulinski Lives the Vincentian Mission

August 5, 2013

Robots get ready to rumble.

Fans cheered and lights blared as the Electric Eagles took to the field at the Edward Jones Dome. The stadium was packed with thousands of supporters, sponsors and college representatives, but this was no football game. Along with 400 other teams, the Electric Eagles had arrived in St. Louis for the annual FIRST Championship, where robust robots showcase the technical and creative acumen of high school students from around the world.

While robotics competitions naturally foreground the life-size assemblages of metal, wire and motors, “it’s not about the robot,” says Mike Ulinski (CDM MS ’06), who has mentored the Electric Eagles for seven years. “The whole concept is to get kids involved with and exposed to science and technology, and to show how fun it can be.” Designing and building a robot may be fun, but it’s also a lot of work. The process begins in early January, when FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) announces the annual “game” and provides a collection of parts to jumpstart each team. Only six weeks later, the first round of regional competitions begins.

The finals in St. Louis.

In 2013, the game entailed shooting Frisbees into a series of goals, followed by a climbing exercise, in which each robot scaled a pyramid-shaped jungle gym structure. Unsurprisingly, conquering these challenges required teamwork, perseverance and creative problem-solving. The Electric Eagles hail from Lindblom Math and Science Academy in West Englewood, so they’re no strangers to difficult technological problems, but the robotics project tends to be daunting. “The majority of my students have never really used power tools,” Ulinski notes. “Quite a few have never seen pneumatics, car window motors or some of our donated materials.”

The team met four times per week, including Saturdays, so the students ramped up quickly. “We actually had students teaching other students,” Ulinski says. In particular, two seniors shared their accumulated experience with the 13 other team members. “I have one student who was distracted a lot as a freshman,” Ulinski remembers. “Now, he still gets our attention, but he’s gotten so enthused with [robotics] that he’s basically learned to do computer-aided design all by himself.” These types of success stories are common in the robotics community.

Poised to begin the game.

Students gravitated toward different roles within the mechanical, electrical, programming and public relations sub-groups. For example, the latter cohort created logos and banners that were strung up in the pit area during competitions. “It actually has a NASCAR feel,” explains Ulinski. Regardless of their specific area of expertise, all students “acquire new skills as they learn how to project manage and speak in front of people.”

Last spring, after placing well in several regional competitions, the Electric Eagles were satisfied with a middle-of-the-pack finish at the FIRST Championships. Now, they’re already thinking about next year; preseason will start again in the fall. For Ulinski, who works as a staff engineer at Shure, volunteering with the Electric Eagles is an ongoing commitment and an enjoyable way to carry out the Vincentian mission of giving back. “It’s just the satisfaction of helping students,” Ulinski muses. “To see the students grow from this and see what additional possibilities [come from this]. It will be great to see what cool stuff they do in the future.”

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Members of the Electric Eagles work on their robot in the pit.

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The robot in action.


DePaul’s “Unique Worldview” Prepares Alumnus for Career in Public Affairs

March 28, 2013
Phil Rodriguez (LAS MPA '11), director of public affairs for the State of Illinois Comptroller.

Phil Rodriguez (LAS MPA ’11), director of public affairs for the State of Illinois Comptroller.

As a young boy in Belleville, Ill., Phil Rodriguez (LAS MPA ’11) spent many happy hours knocking on neighbors’ doors, passing out flyers and talking up political candidates. This early induction to the bustling world of campaigns left a deep impression on Rodriguez. “When you start volunteering… you get a passion for it and a drive to do it, and that’s what happened with me,” he recalls. Rodriguez’s enthusiasm for politics never wavered, and today, as director of public affairs for the State of Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, Rodriguez focuses on improving the lives of Illinois residents.

Rodriguez’s career sends him ping-ponging around the state, from Cairo to Waukegan and back again, but he’s accustomed to the road warrior lifestyle. While pursuing his master’s in public administration from DePaul, Rodriguez worked fulltime on three different campaign races — federal, congressional and gubernatorial. “I’d be in a hotel room at the end of the night, and I would study,” he remembers. “I would write my papers when I was in the back of the car, while the candidate was in the front.”

Though daunting at times, Rodriguez’s persistence paid off, and his political perspective helped enliven classroom discussions. “DePaul provided a really unique atmosphere that allowed me to have some fun debates from the start and see a unique worldview,” he says. “And it was literally a worldview. Students from all over the world were in those classes, and it allowed me to get an approach that I probably wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. And I thought that was really cool.” Rodriguez was initially attracted to DePaul for its “phenomenal reputation,” but he counts engaging professors and dialogues with classmates as the most enduring aspects of his experience.

Shortly before Rodriguez graduated from DePaul, he accepted a position working with the state comptroller on a new minority and small business development program. Rodriguez built this initiative from the ground up, and it helped lead to his current role. As director of public affairs, Rodriguez continues to focus on developing and enhancing relationships. “My team is about going out there, building these relationships, going to nonprofits, and talking to civic organizations and community leaders, saying, ‘where can we help, how can we provide support, how can my team be a liaison to your efforts?’”

Representing the state’s chief financial office is not something Rodriguez takes lightly. “It’s a crucial job right now, because the state is in such dire need in terms of financial payments,” he says. “We found that people don’t know where to go when they’re in [financial] trouble, particularly in the nonprofit community.” Faced with this troubling reality, Comptroller Topinka challenged the office and Rodriguez to create the Illinois Has Heart Tour, which helped educate nonprofits about their options. In particular, the tour highlighted the comptroller’s decision to prioritize payments to nonprofits.

Rodriguez considers the tour one of his great professional accomplishments. “We could see how it had an impact,” he shares. “We saw that the state of Illinois could do something good, find some solutions… we’ve just got to find more of that, and that’s the challenge.” The task won’t be easy, but Rodriguez is definitely up for it. “I really love public service,” he says, grinning. “I love being here, and I love the opportunity to stay involved with constituents and the public.”

Return to the Alumni & Friends website. >>


Alumna Takes SkinnyPop Popcorn to the Top

January 3, 2013

Most days are a whirlwind of activity for Pam Netzky (CMN ’98), president and co-founder of SkinnyPop Popcorn. She talks about going “full steam ahead” and learning the business at “Mach speed.” Each morning, Netzky races to her Chicago office as fast as she can, because she can’t wait to get to work. “I’m truthfully so excited about what we do here,” she says.

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Pam Netzky (CMN ’98), president and co-founder of SkinnyPop Popcorn.

Netzky’s not the only one who’s thrilled with SkinnyPop. Since launching two and a half years ago, the company’s customer base has grown tremendously. SkinnyPop started as an offshoot of Wells Street Popcorn, a hometown favorite that Netzky co-founded with Andy Friedman, Jeffrey Eiserman and Mike Eiserman. Over time, they realized there was room for improvement when it came to their delicious treat. “Wells Street Popcorn is phenomenal, but it’s very gluttonous,” Netzky explains. “Our best customers were saying, ‘I love this, it’s my favorite thing in the world… I’ll see you next month or in two months.’”

The challenge was clear: create a healthier product that customers could eat every day. Thus, SkinnyPop was born. Unlike other popcorns, SkinnyPop is made in a nut-free facility, and each bag is also gluten free, cholesterol free, preservative free and dairy free, not to mention all-natural and non-GMO. At only 39 calories per cup, it’s a fiber-rich, zero trans-fat snack you can feel good about consuming.

“What we strive for is a perfect bag,” Netzky says. “You open up a bag of SkinnyPop, and it’s a perfect, fresh-tasting bag every time. And I think that’s what differentiates us.” Getting to this point wasn’t easy. When Netzky and Friedman started their SkinnyPop venture in the spring of 2010, the learning curve was steep. “We didn’t have any idea what we were doing,” Netzky admits. “We didn’t know how to find distributors; we started trying to Google people’s names.” Their first shipment of bags arrived – 25,000 of them, which was the minimum order – and the two investment bankers turned entrepreneurs switched on the popcorn machines and started popping.  

Later that day, after packing and sealing all the bags, Netzky made a quick visit to Potash Market in Lincoln Park, which already stocked Wells Street Popcorn. “I just sort of put SkinnyPop on the shelf and ran out the door,” Netzky recalls. Looking back, she emphasizes that the process was a fluid one. “It’s important to have a business plan, but it’s just as important to be able to deviate from it… [we were] willing to go in a different direction than where we thought we were going to go.” This perseverance in the face of uncertainty dates back to her time at DePaul University. “School didn’t come easy to me,” Netzky says. “DePaul helped me learn how to get it done… [by giving me] the tools to get it done.”

Look for SkinnyPop at a grocery store near you.

Look for SkinnyPop at a grocery store near you.

Today, stores from California to New York showcase the end result of Netzky’s diligence and determination. Within four months of placing those first bags of SkinnyPop in Potash Market, Netzky and Friedman had secured placement in 85 stores. That number has increased dramatically in the past two years. Currently, SkinnyPop is available in 6,000 grocery stores and 7,500 Walgreens across the country. In Chicago, you can find the addictive snack not only at Potash Market, but also at Jewel, Whole Foods, Treasure Island and Dominick’s, including the Dominick’s on DePaul’s Lincoln Park Campus.

Alumni and current students may want to take a clue from Netzky’s infectious energy – run, don’t walk, to the nearest grocery store to stock up on your own supply of SkinnyPop. “I eat it every day,” Netzky confesses. “Every single day.”


Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart (EDU ’04)

March 20, 2011
LeanneHilgart

Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart (EDU ’04)

As a Chicago native, Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart (EDU ’04) knows about frigid winters. But as a vegan, she struggled to find a fashionable, warm coat that didn’t rely on animal products like wool. While attending DePaul University, she resorted to wearing one coat for style and two sweaters underneath for warmth. “It certainly ruins your outfit if you have to wear two layers and then your coat!” Hilgart says.

In the hopes that no one else would have to compromise their beliefs or their style to make it through winter, Hilgart decided launch her own line of vegan coats. Today her company, Vaute Couture, offers not just coats but shirts, jewelry and more—all without using fur, leather, wool, silk or other animal products. Vaute Couture also emphasizes products that are eco-friendly, fair trade and otherwise ethically produced.

Hilgart didn’t have a fashion design background when starting her line. Rather, she had a passion for raising awareness of social issues. She came to DePaul because she loved how the atmosphere encouraged advocacy and service. “It seemed like no matter who you are or what you’re into, there was a group for you and a place for you to become the best version of yourself,” says Hilgart, who founded DePaul Voice for the Animals as an undergraduate and the DePaul Business Corps as an MBA student.

Vegan designer Leanne Mai-ly Hilgart (EDU '04) talks backstage with her models during a fashion show.

Hilgart hit upon the idea for Vaute Couture while taking classes in brand management and entrepreneurship at the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business. She left grad school in September 2008 because the timing seemed right. “Like everything in entrepreneurship, so much of it is the momentum, so I was ready to take what I had learned at DePaul and start the business then,” she says. After eight months researching vegan fabrics that could stand up to cold weather, she launched for coat preorders in June 2009.

What Hilgart started as a small startup in Chicago is now growing to a studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The company has received positive reviews from sites including Oprah.com and TeenVogue.com, and was named 2010 Company of the Year by VegNews Magazine. Vaute Couture doesn’t have a storefront, so Hilgart uses the Internet, pop-up stores and traveling events to bring shopping opportunities to customers.

Starting a business can be daunting, but Hilgart has advice for future entrepreneurs. “Think about what you can offer to make the world a better place in a way that only you can,” she says. “Then just run with it and don’t let anyone water down your idea or try to make it more normal or doable or easy. Instead, just put in your full passion and don’t wait for approval. Just do it.”