All In

All In


he phrase “rock-star hire” seems tailor-made for Howard Tullman’s arrival at Illinois Tech, where he serves as executive director of the university’s new Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship. Tullman, 73, has the credentials: he’s a veteran entrepreneur, investor, and academic administrator who spent the last five years leading Chicago tech hub 1871, which in February was named the world’s top business incubator. He also brings plenty of rock-star vibe, gliding around campus in a black Mercedes with a “Howie T” vanity plate and casting a bold vision for the Kaplan Institute’s future. We asked him what drew him to Illinois Tech and about his plans for the Kaplan Institute.

Illinois Tech Magazine: Why did this opportunity appeal to you?
Howard Tullman: There were a couple of things that converged. One, I was constantly having conversations at 1871 with people saying, “If we could only get more diverse technical talent,” and I’m like, “Well, do you know that there’s a tech school 10 minutes south of here on the Red Line that has thousands of engineers and 30 percent of the incoming class are the first in their families to attend college?” Honestly, as a major tech school, it’s been largely invisible to the Chicago business community to a staggering extent.

Two, this particular learning environment is a lot different than 1871 in terms of the focus and the stakes. At 1871, I felt like, if you were a kid from a northern suburb and your parents didn’t have anything better to do with you, they’d send you down to fool around for a year trying to invent a pet-dating site. At Illinois Tech you’re here to get a real set of skills that will turn into a real job. The idea behind the Kaplan Institute is to bolt entrepreneurship training and innovation-technology skills onto a set of technical skills, to really make you a more complete and valuable employee.

Illinois Tech Magazine: It’s interesting that you stress employability, considering that the Kaplan Institute is focused on innovation and entrepreneurship.
Howard Tullman: Well, you’re starting to see more conversations about who is the real customer [of a university]. The truth is, we serve the students, but our customer to an increasing extent is also the employer. You best serve the students by preparing them and helping them get great jobs.

From day one, I said that the Kaplan Institute can’t just be the student union for techies. There are plenty of those. And I think that’s a risk; most universities that have incubators are not sufficiently focused on turning out talented and qualified students who can hit the ground running and immediately help their employers. We don’t do [our students] much long-term good if we give them this wonderful education in a vacuum. If I can’t give you the skills you need for tomorrow and if I can’t get you a serious job upon graduation so that you can support yourself and repay your student debt, then we haven’t prepared you and fully equipped you with the skills you’re going to require not simply for graduation but to go on and build a successful future.

Illinois Tech Magazine: How does entrepreneurial training fit the needs of employers?
Howard Tullman: The big companies just don’t have a clue how to address innovation and rapid change. They just don't have the time, the resources, or the methodology to do six alternative versions of a project and see which one wins. They’re scared to death because if they hire people and launch a bunch of new projects (most of which will fail), then 90 days from now their CFO is going to say, “How’d we do? Did we discover oil? No? Okay, well, fire those people.” When you’re building a space and a program and an interdisciplinary environment like Kaplan, you’re building it to turn out people for jobs that haven’t been invented yet, to use technologies that we’re just now working on, and to address problems that we don’t yet know are going to be problems.
Illinois Tech Magazine: The Kaplan Institute isn’t the first time you’ve been in charge of a sparkling, new, high-tech facility; you had a similar opportunity at 1871 and also when you were leading Kendall College and Tribeca Flashpoint College. How do you approach breaking in a new program in a new space?
Howard Tullman: You have to build a culture and a rigorous discipline that you explain, promote, and enforce consistently. We know that you can explain things to people all day long, but you can’t understand things for them. They have to see it and live it and adopt it and believe it. You can’t talk a culture into changing. It only changes when you take the actions necessary to bring about those critical changes. If you aren’t rigorous and aggressive, the necessary changes won’t happen by themselves. Change isn’t easy and it’s always easier to keep doing things the same old way.

Over time, businesses become the behaviors they tolerate. If we start out at Kaplan and say, “Everybody can do whatever they please and you can have piles of scraps and material spread out everywhere,” then you’ll end up with a mess that sends the wrong message to everyone—students, faculty, supporters and donors, and especially employers. That’s not going to be how it is at KI. Order, organization, control, and discipline are all components of being proud of what you’re doing and paying attention to the details, and it’s absolutely contagious. Our entire team will model the behaviors that drive success and lead by example.

Illinois Tech Magazine: You’re 73. Have you given any thought to the length of your tenure here?
Howard Tullman: If I’m here three to five years, that’s essentially the timeframe that I do almost everything in. That’s enough time to point things in the right direction. 1871 went from zero to number one in the world in five years. I think the Kaplan Institute can be as powerful in its own way as what’s going on at Carnegie Mellon or MIT. We have a window and a unique and special opportunity to really build our story and get on the map.