In the early 2000s, I began meeting regularly with a friend 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 we observed in the startup ecosystem post-recession.

First, there was increasing discussion that the worldwide economy would only get back on its feet and see growth through job creation by entrepreneurs and innovation-based companies. Second, since new and 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. Third, 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. And finally, there was the rise of startup accelerators and other bootcamps, which led us to ask the question, "What support could be helpful to the graduates of those programs, which typically only lasted a few months?" 

Beyond these trends, I had begun a couple years prior a personal journey of learning about emotional intelligence, cognitive science, and leadership. The more I studied these areas, the more I realized that there was something missing in the startup ecosystem related to personal development. Specifically, I wondered if leadership training could be a missing link in the pathway to entrepreneurial survival and success. What if launching a company was about more than just product, market, and funding? What if, at some point, it became more about leadership, people, and culture?

After all, I had noticed throughout my career that there was plenty of structured support for early-stage startups (incubators, accelerators, university programs, etc.) but virtually none for growth-stage ones. And so in early 2011, my friend and I sensed an opportunity to create an "incubator" of sorts for growth-stage companies but we didn't know what it would actually do.

So we began our "research and development" process which involved deep interviews with dozens of startups and others in Chicago's business community. As time went on, we started to see patterns develop as we learned what those companies' problems were: what 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 began to narrow in on the concept of a program that was basically a curriculum but a fairly unconventional one at that. We pitched it to our friends at the then-new new startup co-working community, Catapult Chicago, and it resonated with them so much that they asked us to house it in their space.

A few months later, Catherine Jelinek joined me to launch The Junto Institute. We recruited companies for our pilot program and first cohort which began in early 2013. The companies began to see results, we were pleasantly surprised at how the program was developing, and later that year, five companies graduated as our first alumni (above photo).

We wondered if we had caught lightning in a bottle or if we could replicate it, so we recruited a new class of five companies for JuntoII which ran in 2014. Again, we saw them experience accelerated positive change, both for their businesses and the founders. That was when we knew were on to something.