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Barry Schrader


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NIU business instructor teaches nonprofit approach

By Barry Schrader.................................January 9, 2008

A new Northern Illinois University instructor in the College of Business has given up life as a business executive and returned to his roots in Illinois to begin a teaching career.

A 1977 NIU graduate in management, he is back at his alma mater after climbing the ladder to success in Silicon Valley, where he found fame and fortune in the technology business. His office is small and windowless, and he refuses to accept pay for his teaching.

Who could afford to do that? Dennis Barsema. He's a household name at NIU, where he gave $20 million in 2000 to build a new College of Business building, Barsema Hall.

Now, he's followed his passion to become a teacher.

"If you find your passion (in a career), the money may follow, but even if the money doesn't follow, the gratification that is in your heart will make up for it, for any loss of income, lack of lifestyle or lack of worldly goods," he said. "And, by the way, the worldly goods don't last very long - they will rust or wear out."

Last semester, Barsema conducted two small pilot classes. One, an honors class in entrepreneurship, is not new, but the other, in social entrepreneurship and microfinancing, is a different concept.

The class studies how small, low-interest loans, or "microloans," of about $100 to $200 for four months can enable the poor in developing countries to generate income by becoming entrepreneurs. A loan can buy a sewing machine for a woman who wants to become a seamstress or an oven for a man who has the desire and skill to be a baker for his village. Opportunity International, a nonprofit, operates microloan programs in 129 countries already. The default rate on these loans is only 2 percent worldwide.

Barsema uses that organization as an example for his class. He also took students to Mexico for a week to learn firsthand how such loans are used and how they influence the local economy.

Barsema comes from a blue-collar background. He lived just outside Naperville, where his father was a maintenance worker for a food company and his mother a community college secretary. His first job was helping his brother clean out the horse stalls at the local polo club, a summer job he kept all through high school and college. After graduating from NIU with a bachelor's degree in management, he headed to Califor-nia, where Silicon Valley beckoned up-and-coming entrepreneurs. But after many years in the fast-moving and often quick-downfall environment of big business, he and his wife, Stacey, thought there must be something "more fulfilling, more significant in life," he said.

He said it took them seven years to reach a point where they were able to divest themselves of that high life, giving away about half their fortune and returning to northern Illinois, where they are now building a country home and horse farm and plan to spend the rest of their lives following their passions: nonprofits that help people - and in one case, farm animals - and mentoring students about making life choices.

"You have to make a commitment," Barsema said. "You can't cut yourself in half and remain in your old business and social world. That way you end up being good at nothing. ... You've just got to find your passion ... and make a significant difference. Roll up your sleeves and be a part of what you want to support, not just with your money."

He tells his students to pursue their passion and not to "go into something because you think you will make a lot of money, or because your mom or dad did it."

One of his three sons, who teaches grade school in Florida, is a good example. Though his son may never make an annual salary of even $45,000, Barsema proudly proclaims that his son will be the "best male first-grade teacher in Tampa!"

Barsema, along with Stacey, started a nonprofit with Barsema's brother and his wife in Rockford called Carpenter's Place. Using a 14-step program, the organization has taken 300 homeless people off the streets each year for the past two years, helping them become self-sufficient, productive citizens.

Here in DeKalb, Barsema wants to develop a center for social entrepreneurship in NIU's College of Business, something rare in business schools anywhere.

"If there is any legacy I could leave behind at Northern, it would be that 20 years from now, we have one of the top social entrepreneurship programs in the country," he said. "And to think it started this semester with this one little class."

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Barry Schrader
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DeKalb, Ill 60115

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