The Genesis of The Junto Institute: The Idea, The People, and The Outcome

In the early 2000s, I was meeting regularly with a friend, David Gamperl, about the idea of starting an incubator. We never got past the early planning stages, and it went dormant for the rest of the decade. In late 2010, we resuscitated the idea based on several trends and developments in the startup ecosystem that emerged post-recession.

  1. There was increasing discussion that the worldwide economy would only get back on its feet and see growth through job creation from innovation-based companies.

  2. Since recent college graduates were having trouble finding jobs, we noticed that more of them began to launch startups or join them as early (often unpaid) employees.

  3. We noticed that despite how talented and hard-working those young people were, they didn't have the opportunity for formal, structured, and professional training that employees of larger organizations enjoy.

  4. Finally, there was the rise of startup accelerators and other bootcamps, which led us to the question, "What support could be helpful to the graduates of those programs, which typically only last a few months?"

Alongside these trends, I had begun a personal journey of learning about emotional intelligence (EI), cognitive science, and leadership. I was fascinated by the positive correlation I kept reading about between EI and leadership effectiveness. And since I firmly believed that leadership couldn't be taught, I wondered if it could be learned by developing more emotionally intelligent skills, behaviors, and habits.

The more I studied these areas, the more I wondered if there was something missing in entrepreneurship education and the pathway to entrepreneurial success. What if building a company was about more than just product, market, and funding? What if, at a certain point, it was actually about leadership, people, and culture? And, if that was the case, how could entrepreneurs accelerate their leadership capabilities to accelerate their company's long-term performance? And, finallly, why wasn't anyone talking about it or doing anything about it? 

After all, I had observed and experienced throughout my career that there was plenty of structured support for early-stage startups to learn about launching a business (incubators, accelerators, meetups, university programs, etc.). And, based on my experience, I had concluded that starting one was the easy part; running and growing a company was the hard part.

Despite that, I noticed that there was virtually no structured support for growth-stage businesses. Sure, there were plenty of consultants and some organizations that served CEOs, but nothing I found focused on growing companies and their leadership team. Furthermore, nothing zeroed in on the idea of accelerating the learning curve of how to lead and manage a growth-stage business. 

So in early 2011, David and I sensed an opportunity to create an "incubator" of sorts for growth-stage companies. The problem was we didn't know what it would actually do. Along with another friend, Jeff Carter of West Loop Ventures, we began a research and development process which involved deep interviews with dozens of startups and others in Chicago's business community.

As time went on, we began to see patterns in what those companies' problems were: what they wished they knew, who they wished they had in their network, what their daily struggles and challenges were, and what they were worried about as they were building their companies. In early 2012, we completed the interview process and wondered how we could solve those problems.

Over the next few months, I began hypothesizing several solutions and narrowed in on a concept that was effectively a "curriculum" but an unconventional one: rather than relying on content, knowledge, and subject matter experts (professors and self-proclaimed gurus), it would rely on process, wisdom, and experienced practitioners (CEOs, entrepreneurs, and operating executives). It would be less of place that focused on individuals, and more of a place that focused on teams and community. It would be less of a place where entrepreneurs were taught by teachers, and more of a place where they learned from people who had "been there, done that." 

In other words, it would be an apprenticeship, not a school.

Furthermore, this unconventional curriculum would integrate the learning of "soft skills": emotional intelligence training to help accelerate the leadership development of the participants. That would take the form of both classroom-style learning (because we discovered that many people were not familiar with what emotional intelligence was) and experiential learning, where they would actually practice new behaviors during the program. Our intent was that these emotionally intelligent behaviors would lead to positive habits that would help accelerate the leadership capabilities of the participants. 

Then, in the summer of 2012, we faced an identity crisis: what was this "thing" we were creating? Was it an incubator, an alternative MBA, a self-improvement program, or a post-accelerator? We debated the pros and cons of each one, ultimately concluding that this "thing" was actually a blend of all of them.

Around the same time, we picked a name for the new entity, and pitched the program to our friends at the then-new startup community, Catapult Chicago. It resonated with them so much that they asked us to house it in their space.

David and Jeff were working on their own ventures at the time, so a few months later, Catherine Jelinek joined me to launch The Junto Institute. We then began the recruitment process for our first cohort of companies, as well as the dozens of mentors and instructors we would need. In early 2013, that pilot program began. Within a few months, the companies and their leaders were starting to see results and in December of that year, five companies graduated as our initial alumni.

Today, we have completed three cohorts with 14 alumni companies. The founders and leaders of those growth-stage firms have told us that Junto has helped improve who they are and what they do. 

They tell us that Junto has helped address the "lonely at the top" syndrome that many of them faced. They tell us that having access to a community of experienced mentors and being forced to work on the business (rather than in it) has helped them make better decisions. They tell us that they have greater confidence and clarity. And they tell us that learning emotional intelligence has not only made them better leaders but better people.

The outcome of all that is that those 14 companies have been averaging 108% annual revenue growth since the time they enrolled in the program, a number that was a very pleasant surprise for Catherine, me, our team, and the entire Junto community.

Our fourth cohort, which consists of six additional companies, will graduate in October and we're now recruiting for JuntoV, scheduled to begin this fall. We're still challenged to find the right types of companies for Junto: those with a heightened level of self-awareness and humility to acknowledge that "what got them here won't get them there", and those that can be vulnerable enough for this type of learning. But we know that with continued results, we'll find them.

And fortunately, we no longer say that this "thing" is a blend of an incubator, alternative MBA, a self-improvement program, and a post-accelerator. Instead, because of the outcomes, we now say that The Junto Institute is a leadership and revenue accelerator for growth-stage companies.