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Barry Schrader


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Dennis Barsema talks about classes, young grads, Obama

By Barry Schrader.................................February 4, 2009

Mega-millionaire Dennis Barsema, the Silicon Valley executive who decided to give up the rat race and return to teaching and philanthropy at his alma mater, Northern Illinois University, still has a lot of irons in the fire.
Sitting down with him in his NIU College of Business office recently, after writing about him a year ago, I found him still brimming with enthusiasm for the new courses he has pioneered and other charitable projects he has on his plate.
He has completed a second round of classes this fall in social entrepreneurship and microfinancing. Truly, Barsema has his sights set on creating a “Center for Social Entrepreneurship” at the university that will attract bright young students “to become more socially responsible in their careers and want to make this world a better place.”
He said his department chairperson is helping him through the process of making these new courses part of the core curriculum in the College of Business.
“We are meeting right now for a final reading at the College of Business level and after that, with their approval, will go on to the University level,” he explained. “Then both classes will become part of the course catalog. It makes me feel great because before now it was just my experiment, my initiative.”
Last fall he took a second group of 10 business majors to a poverty-stricken section of Guadalajara, Mexico, in conjunction with Opportunity International, which provides small loans (microfinancing) for startup businesses that only need a few hundred dollars to get their home-based (in most cases) project off the ground.
“It was a life-changing experience for these students,” he said. “They got to actually talk and walk with the poor who receive these loans. Each student was assigned a client to interact with and then came back to class here, where they had to write a paper about the experience. Many of my students had not been outside the country before and certainly never into the inner city sections of an urban area of a developing country.”
He only teaches, for no pay, during the fall semester each year so he can spend time on his other projects in the remaining months. Besides overseeing the construction of their new home in Barrington Hills, he and his wife, Stacey, are working with his brother, Allen, on a nonprofit venture called Carpenters Place. With this project, they take homeless people off the streets, put them through a 14-step life-changing process which makes them productive citizens, with a job and a home.
He was pleased to report they have been successful with 300 people in the Rockford area so far in the first three years of the program. Now they have developed an electronic database in conjunction with NIU that will track these people as they go to various agencies for drug and alcohol rehab, job counseling and skills training.
“Before, we sent them to the other agencies but had no way of monitoring their progress,” he said. “Now we have a way to keep track of their progress each step of the way.”
He and his brother and their wives have now formed a second nonprofit, Community Collaboration Inc. in Rockford with Dennis as chairman. They have hired a CEO, a former classmate of his, and are doing a lot of fundraising.
“This could ideally be installed in every community in the country because there is a need for it,” he explains.
Asked about what the future holds for young college graduates facing a bleak economy and dwindling job market, Barsema said, “The key word is patience. It’s just going to take them longer to find jobs. It’s a very competitive world today and you need a 3-point-something grade point average plus a record of community and volunteer service. The companies want more today than just a good grade point average, but someone who has done a lot of extra-curricular activities and is well-rounded. The jobs are there for them.”
Getting around to the topic of the new administration, Barsema was quick to point out he is bullish on Barack Obama.
“We (he and Stacey) went to Obama’s inauguration,” he said. “At the swearing-in ceremony, it is the first time I can remember it really felt like a ‘United States.’ Everybody really felt that it was a new day ... you could just feel the energy of a new administration. I think that everything Barack Obama has said resonates well with the American people. While there, we felt the sense of community, the sense of pride coming back to the U.S. and the people.
“He is not a savior – people who expect him to be that are going to be terribly disappointed. But what he can be and what I think he will be is a leader who will show us that, working together, everybody pulling their own weight and pulling the same rope at the same time, we will right this country.
“Things are bleak right now ... but we are going to come out of this and I think we’ll come out stronger and smarter ... He has assembled a great team of people – some really smart folks – and I can’t wait to see what they are going to do.”

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Barry Schrader
PO Box 851
DeKalb, Ill 60115