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Northwestern Student-Run Businesses Offer Real-World Experience

Undergraduates looking to gain first-hand experience in launching and managing businesses have found themselves drawn to Northwestern Student Holdings.

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August 12, 2008
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern Student Holdings (NSH) is the real deal when it comes to student-run businesses at Northwestern University. Undergraduates looking to gain valuable first-hand experience in launching and managing successful businesses have found themselves drawn to the parent company.

"Students are truly excited to work for us because we are making things happen, both on and off campus," said Nihar Shah, co-CEO of NSH and a junior in economics and Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences. NSH's other CEO is Ravi Umarji, a junior in applied mathematics and economics, who spent the summer working for the global investment firm Goldman Sachs in New York. "What I enjoy most about NSH is how real it is," Umarji said. "We are literally starting businesses, providing students with unparalleled experience while simultaneously enriching the Northwestern community."

NSH's most successful enterprise is Chicago Unzipped, a guidebook to Chicago and Evanston. "This past year, we took Chicago Unzipped to a new level, selling out the entire inventory of the second edition in just five months," Shah explained. "For the third edition, which has just been released, we have printed more than three times the number of books. And thanks to sponsorships from several Northwestern departments, we will be able to give a copy to every incoming freshman," he said.

Jeff Coney, director of economic development at Northwestern, is chairman of NSH's board of directors -- a nine-person committee that includes both faculty members and people from the business community at large. Coney also acts as the lead student advisor for the company. "NSH provides students with real-world insight into what is involved in starting and running a business -- the nuts and bolts aspects," Coney said.

A big reason for NSH's success lies in its vetting process of business plans. Chicago Unzipped, created in 2004, has performed well because its proof of concept was solid. It is a unique product, aiming mostly to divert people to lesser-known areas of the city, such as Armour Square and Edgewater, while also covering the typical beaten paths of the city, such as Michigan Avenue and State Street. It also has a section devoted exclusively to Evanston.

This year NSH is looking forward to the launch of a new business, NUTutors, an enterprise designed to offer tutoring services to local middle school and high school students. Its main focus is on preparing students for SAT and ACT exams. What makes NUTutors an appealing business opportunity is the need for a low-cost tutoring service in the local community. Private services such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review charge more than $100 per hour, but Northwestern's service plans to charge about $40 to $50 per hour.

On campus, NUTutors has created quite a stir because of the salary it can offer. Northwestern students hired as tutors can expect to earn between $20 and $30 an hour -- far more than most other student employment opportunities at the University.

But running businesses, especially startups, isn't trivial. "Like every startup, we've had some wrong turns and slip-ups that we've had to push through," said Matt Cohlmia, former president of Chicago Unzipped, who graduated this June with a degree in industrial engineering. "The second edition almost didn't make it to print. We once nearly lost the entire book when a hard drive crashed, and now we're trying to bring the book online to add new features -- a task that's proving incredibly difficult," Cohlmia explained.

But with every obstacle the students have overcome, they've grown more knowledgeable and enthusiastic. "At one point last year, Ravi and I were putting in more than 30 hours per week for NSH-related work," Shah said. "But the reason we were able to put so many hours in was because we didn't think of it as work."

"With people as passionate and hard-working as we have in our organization, the amount of things we can accomplish is staggering," Umarji added. "Equally important is making sure we take on what we can handle and keeping in mind that consistent progress is sometimes preferable to rapid growth."