01 Dec 2001
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Steven Rogers

A Better Chance
by Susan Young

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Before his 14th birthday, Steven Rogers (MBA '85) was already learning a lot about business. He had delivered newspapers and milk in his Southside Chicago neighborhood, bused tables at a downtown hotel, distributed dentures for a group of dentists, restocked groceries at the corner store, and helped his mother, a single parent of four, sell furniture at weekend flea markets. Although his family was "periodically on welfare" and food stamps were a regular part of life, Rogers describes his upbringing with equal amounts of enthusiasm and pride. "We never wanted for anything. My mother only had a tenth-grade education, but she was a voracious reader who taught herself the jewelry and antiques business," he says.

Inspired by his mother — "an eccentric entrepreneur" — and her perseverance, the hardworking Rogers went on to become a successful entrepreneur who has received numerous awards for teaching at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Since 1995, Rogers has combined his firsthand business experience and solid academic foundation with his gift for pedagogy to make his Entrepreneurial Finance course the most popular at Kellogg.

“I have always been proud of maintaining my ethnic identity while also being a part of the broader community.”

Rogers likes to say that he put an end to the cycle of welfare in his family, and he is quick to emphasize that he did not do it alone. Like his mother, his Uncle Ray and especially his brother John had a great influence on him. "He is my hero," he says of John, who is four years his senior. "I followed his lead. He did well in school, so I did too. He worked several jobs, and I did the same. In fact, every job I worked, he had first."

This positive influence paved the way for Rogers to gain acceptance into A Better Chance (ABC), a program designed to help smart, minority kids reach their full potential. As a tenth-grader, Rogers was placed in a group house in Radnor, Pennsylvania, with eleven other teenagers from all over the country. "We were there to take advantage of the public education provided by this very affluent community," says Rogers, who excelled academically, socially, and athletically. "ABC changed my life," he adds simply.

At Williams College, where he majored in history and played football, Rogers worked several jobs to make ends meet. As a junior, he was a resident tutor in the ABC house in Williamstown, and as a senior, he gained custody of his younger sister, Laura, because his mother could no longer take care of her. The night before graduation, he married his college classmate, Michele Johnson. Both accepted positions with Cummins Engine Company and moved, with Laura, to Columbus, Indiana, and then to Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

Rogers was impressed with the emphasis on values as well as profit at Cummins, where he worked both as a customer-service supervisor and as a purchasing agent. "I had always believed in treating employees well," he notes, "but that idea really crystallized when I went to Cummins and saw a Fortune 500 company that made values an integral part of its mission statement."

Rogers' own values were tested shortly after a 1981 move to rural North Carolina. Upon purchasing a home abutting the local country club — where his firm had a corporate membership — he learned that blacks were barred from joining. "I have always been proud of maintaining my ethnic identity while also being a part of the broader community," he says. As a boy, he attended civil rights rallies with his mother; as an adult, he felt compelled to test the country club's rules by going to lunch there with a white colleague. "You could have cut the tension with a knife," recalls Rogers, who was met by his boss when he returned from lunch and told that next time, unfortunately, the club would not seat him in the main dining room. Rogers then launched a successful campaign to get his company to revoke its membership. "I am, after all, my mother's son," he notes with a laugh.

At HBS, Rogers found the case method particularly suited to his strengths. "I love debate and analysis," he says. After graduation, he went to work for Bain & Company. "Bain taught me how to take the analysis I learned at HBS and apply it to real-world situations," notes Rogers. "I learned to be very comfortable solving problems." Meanwhile, Michele worked in the Harvard Development Office and then enrolled in the MBA Program, earning her degree in 1986. (She is now director of Admissions at Kellogg.) By the time she graduated, the pair had two daughters, Akilah and Ariel.

In 1989, Steven and Michele Rogers decided to pursue their entrepreneurial interests and purchased Fenchel Lampshade Company in Chicago, a 66-year-old manufacturing company. (HBS professor William Sahlman, one of Rogers' mentors, has written a case about the purchase.) In 1991, they purchased a second lampshade company and then, two years later, a retail store. "I found I liked doing the deals more than running the businesses," says Rogers, who had been moonlighting as a guest speaker and adjunct professor at Kellogg. In 1995, he sold the businesses, and when the school offered him a fulltime teaching position, he knew he had found his true calling.

Rogers, the Gund Family Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship, has been voted Kellogg's Professor of the Year five times, was recently cited for his influence on entrepreneurship by Fortune, and was named one of the top twelve entrepreneurship professors by Business Week in 1996. He believes the secret to goodteaching is the ability to have empathy for the students, and his primary objective is to make the course "user-friendly."

Rogers thinks practical experience is important in teaching: He is a partner in four venture capital funds, which gives him a chance, as he says, "to put my money where my mouth is." He also sits on three corporate boards, including SC Johnson Wax, as well as on several entrepreneurial and nonprofit boards (including that of ABC). While serving as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, he created the Entrepreneur Internship Program. Rogers is devoted to promoting entrepreneurship among minorities and is a cofounder of The Runners' Club, a training program for African-American entrepreneurs.

In reviewing Rogers' 1972 application to the ABC program, one can easily spot hints of his future success. "Steven is unique in that he is aware of his capabilities, and he uses them maturely," wrote one of his ninth-grade teachers. "He sees the relationship between the academic and the practical." Clearly such youthful proclivities have become the well-honed skills that define the man.

— Susan Young

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