$5 million gift to help raise up new entrepreneurs

Steve Miller and Bruce Barron took the usual route to success—the circuitous and serendipitous one.

 

They were both raised in Skokie, Illinois (though they never met until after college). They both earned bachelor’s degrees in business from the University of Illinois (Miller in business administration and marketing and Barron in accounting). They both continued to go their separate ways until in 1998 they finally, through a mutual acquaintance, met for lunch.

That lunch led to the founding of Origin Ventures, a venture capital firm, in 1999. Today, Origin Ventures is a leading venture capital firm that collaborates with ambitious founders to build high-growth, innovative, category-defining technology companies.  Miller and Barron have been coming to campus regularly to work with students in the Academy of Entrepreneurial Leadership, one of the major initiatives of the Gies College of Business.

Recently, Barron and The REAM Foundation (in honor of Steve Miller) invested $5 million in the Gies College of Business to rename the academy, “the Origin Ventures Academy of Entrepreneurial Leadership.”  The University’s Board of Trustees approved the naming at its March meeting.

Different Routes, Same Destination

Steve Miller’s path seems more typical for an entrepreneur. His father and uncle founded a highly successful office supply business, Quill, where Miller worked as a teenager.  After graduating from Illinois in 1987, he spent the next 10 years at Quill, running the Canadian distribution center and then taking P&L responsibility for a $30 million product line.

He then started Quill’s e-commerce operation in 1995, wrote the business plan for the company’s first website, and managed the web team from zero to $15 million annual revenue.

Miller’s entrepreneurial spirit was also evidenced in other facets of his life. His passion for theater, which remains today, began at age eight when he started acting.  He  was trained in improvisation at The Second City by several teachers who went on to storied careers, including comedian and television host Stephen Colbert.

Bruce Barron’s path started out differently.

Barron grew up with a father who worked two jobs and a mother who worked in an office for a text book company. His father was a typesetter, printer, and proofreader, working from midnight to 7 a.m., and after coming home for breakfast, he’d go to his second job, selling automotive parts. Barron’s older brother was the first in his family to go to college.

Barron knew in high school that he wanted to be an accountant. He graduated from University of Illinois in 1977 on a Sunday, and one week later  he went to work for J.K. Lasser, which was the #9 accounting firm at the time (there was a Big Eight in accounting back then, rather than a Big Four).

“I thought the Big Eight firms were too big,” Barron says of his choice of J.K. Lasser. Then, he says, two months after he started work, Big Eight firm Touche Ross (now Deloitte) acquired J.K. Lasser.

“I used to joke that Touche Ross acquired J.K. Lasser because I had turned them down and they wanted me to work for them,” Barron says.

So, from humble beginnings, Barron followed his plan for a fulfilling life—first by getting a college education, then by entering the stable and perhaps staid field of accounting.

From 1977 to 1985 he carved out the beginnings of a highly successful accountancy career—successful enough that he was offered a partnership with a local Chicago firm in 1985.

And then his path took a very different turn.

“I remember telling my wife that the partnership was everything I had worked for in my career,” Barron says. “And I said ‘I don’t think I want to do this.’ She said ‘Are you crazy?’ But I saw how other partners lived. I just didn’t want that.”

The call of being an entrepreneur had been gently tugging on him. He had already almost gone into an entrepreneurial venture with a friend, but backed away at the last moment.

Now, with a partnership in a top accountancy firm awaiting him, it was now or never.

He decided on now.

Barron leapt into the world of entrepreneurialism and never looked back. He has served as president, chairman, CEO and/or CFO of several startup medical technology companies and has also served on several boards of med tech startups.

“I always had an entrepreneurial spirit,” Barron says. “I wanted to use my entrepreneurial spirit in areas where I could give back and hopefully be part of an organization that was helping people.”

Barron did just that from 1985 to 1998—during which most of that time, Steve Miller helped increase Quill’s profitability. In 1998, the Miller family sold Quill to Staples.

Miller wanted to take some of the proceeds of the sale of Quill and invest it in helping startups and entrepreneurs. A friend suggested talking to Barron.

And so the two Skokie boys finally met, in the summer of 1998.

“I introduced Steve to some venture capitalists around Chicago, and we would catch up every four to six weeks and have lunch,” Barron recalls. “Finally, about four to five months into our meetings, Steve said ‘I’m looking for someone to invest with, but I haven’t found the right person yet.’ I said ‘Well, I’m running this biotech company, I can find some time, so let’s think about investing our own money.’ And that’s what we chose to do.”

That choice gave birth to Origin Ventures.

Origin Ventures Highlights

“Our signature achievement and what we’re best known for,” says Miller, “is being first investors in Grubhub.” Miller says the company, which facilitates the online or phone ordering of food from restaurants for pickup or delivery, had only five employees when they were looking for their first round of venture investments.

“We led the first two rounds of their venture investments, and Grubhub went on to become a public company that’s worth over $8 billion on the New York Stock Exchange,” Miller says. “When we invested, it was tiny, there were 100 restaurants on the platform, it was all in Chicago, and we helped them grow. I was on the board our first four years after the investment and then Bruce came on the board and it took off after that.”

When Grubhub went public in 2014, “it validated our sixteen years of work as entrepreneurs and our success as investors,” Miller says.

Planting More Seeds

Miller and Barron have been raising and providing seed and early-stage money for entrepreneurs and startups for nearly 20 years, and The REAM Foundation has provided seed money for innovative programs with entrepreneurial leaders since its inception.   This winter, they were thrilled to announce that Bruce Barron’s gift, along with that of The REAM Foundation, would amount to $5 million as seed money for rising young entrepreneurs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The REAM Foundation made its portion of the gift in honor of Steve, to recognize his contributions to The REAM Foundation, higher education, and his passion for innovation in business as demonstrated through his business ventures.  

“We’re a venture capital firm that invests in entrepreneurs,” Miller says. “With the work that the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership does, it’s perfectly aligned with our vision as a firm, to be investing in great entrepreneurs. When the naming opportunity came up, both Bruce and I felt it was a perfect match for what our firm does.”

“This gift provides a tremendous boost to our College and specifically to our focus on innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Dean Jeffrey R. Brown. “This is a major gift that will enable us to further our efforts in entrepreneurship and enhance our position as a leader in the teaching and fostering of young entrepreneurs.”

In addition, Brown says, their gift directly supports one of the College’s major priorities: innovation. “We are not business as usual at Illinois,” he says. “Innovation is among our highest priorities. Our purpose is not just to prepare students with the skills they need to succeed in the business world, but to be leaders in innovative pursuits, in disruptive thinking, and in distinctive leadership.”

That is exactly what Barron and The REAM Foundation have in mind in supporting the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

The academy, Barron says, will help students to become entrepreneurs and allow us to “indirectly be investing in more and more startups and, in doing so, hopefully we’ll create more jobs and more wealth and help sustain those activities in the state.” 

Critical Time For Funding

Miller sees their gift as coming at a critical time. “There’s no question what the fiscal situation of the state government is, and that its support for the University of Illinois and for the Gies College of Business is dwindling,” he says. “If we’re going to maintain the excellence the University of Illinois has achieved over a century and a half, that takes resources. If those resources are not going to come from the State of Illinois, then there are three other places it can come from: increased tuition, which is not preferred; research grants, which the university already does a great job in getting; and philanthropy. That’s the source that really has been not as well tapped over the history of the university, because they didn’t have to. Now, I think it’s a necessity.”

Miller is chair of the Dean’s Business Council for Gies College of Business, and has served on the council for eight years. He also provides funding for the Steven N. Miller Entrepreneurial Scholarships and the Diane N. and Steven N. Miller Centennial Chair in Business at Illinois.

“The venture capital community both in Chicago and nationwide is recognized for its giving and its philanthropy,” says Barron. “It’s part of how we want to give back, and our alma mater is a great place where we can do that.”