The following is a guest commentary by Mike Shannon ’12.

Shannon is co-founder and CEO of Packback, an e-textbook company that he launched with other students while still attending Illinois State University. Packback has since expanded its digital catalog to roughly 3,200 digital titles available for 24-hour rental. The company’s student ambassador program has grown to 200 students across 70 campuses. Shannon and Packback co-founder Kasey Gandham appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank in March.

“There is often much talk in the tech community about college campuses providing a hub for creativity and natural incubation for startup companies. This spans beyond solely entrepreneurs and to students etc. But what happens after graduation? Campus becomes a mere place of memories and nostalgic walks through the Quad once a year at Homecoming, right? Or, perhaps, is it more than that? I recently had an opportunity to see more than that at my alma mater, Illinois State University.

Kasey Gandham and I, two of the four ISU founding members of Packback, recently visited campus to help out with ISU’s recent Startup Showcase, speak with a few hundred incoming freshmen and parents, and meet many of ISU’s administrative leaders. I felt incredibly welcome coming back to Illinois State, and as an alumni I feel a responsibility to STATE my support for the current leadership and continued development of the school. We met with President Larry Dietz as well as several other leaders including interim Dean Gerry McKean of the College of Business. They were all eager to learn what we are up to at Packback, actively introduced us to other alumni, and shared insights into our strategy for the continued growth of Packback. It was a wonderful visit.

Driving back to Chicago after the visit, I had three primary tenants of thought to process.

1) My experience at Illinois State

ISU is a uniquely special place to me, as well as to my friends and Packback co-founders Kasey, Nick Currier, and Jessica Tenuta. When asked to describe what’s special about the University, I always go back to the grit and humble work ethic apparent at Illinois State. The students who choose ISU, particularly business students, are the savvy kind looking for a clear return on investment. ISU’s affordability and real experience offers an unmatched advantage in that regard. Students at Illinois State work. They achieve academically, yes, but what’s more important to me is that they generally work jobs outside of the classroom. That work ethic is the intangible gold that can’t be forged in the classroom, but it can absolutely be harnessed in a community. I think that’s what we’ve done as a community of Redbirds.

2) Underdog mentality

While the Redbirds have continued to climb year over year in both academic and athletic rankings, I believe we’ve maintained our “chip on the shoulder” with a lasting underdog mentality. Being a plain old competitor at heart, I believe that a mentality of “playing from behind” is crucial to maintaining the work ethic necessary for success. I’ve seen too many high schools graduates make it to the Ivy League and adopt a mentality that the job was done, and their success was set. Wrong. The learning journey is just beginning once accepted into a University, and the most important aspect of learning is extracted from experience.

At Illinois State, I found a sweet spot of highly intelligent peers, who kept an unmatched “chip on our shoulder” mentality. We know that there are other schools ranking higher in the national ratings, but we were determined to prove ourselves. That’s a magical formula.


— Rachel Caracci (@RachelC_ISU) November 8, 2014


3) Most commonly asked question: ‘What did ISU mean to you?’

The above question is now a bit peculiar in my mind. Rather than asking “What did ISU mean to you?” I believe the true conversation should revolve around the question of “What does ISU continue to mean to you?”

Being a Redbird isn’t a four-year stint. The continual support is critical, and it’s an incremental part of attending Illinois State. Putting on my entrepreneur hat for a moment, I equate the ISU supporting system to the Chicago startup ecosystem. In founding Packback, many advised us that in order to start a company you must be in Silicon Valley. The Valley is no doubt the most established startup ecosystem in the country. However, Chicago provides a robust developing ecosystem. When you have a developing ecosystem, the support is incomparably better. If we would have headed right out to the Valley, Packback may very well have been lost in the vast sea of Silicon startups. Instead, in Chicago, we quickly gained the support of the key community leaders, and Packback recently received the Chicago Innovation Awards’ Up and Comer Award, which comes with a lunch with the mayor, governor, and a trip to New York to ring the NASDAQ.

I can easily compare that support system to Illinois State. As students working on a startup company idea, we had the support of professors and administrators alike as students. We never felt like just another student project then, and we don’t feel like just another group of alumni now. The University has embraced our vision and the continued efforts of Packback’s Redbird student ambassadors. President Dietz has personally shared time and insights. Dean McKean engaged in deep strategic conversations with us. The value of that support and enthusiasm simply can’t be measured in words or rankings.

Now it’s time for all of us young alumni and upcoming graduates to play their part. It’s a new day for the Redbird community. This community doesn’t span just four years. That means alumni need to ban together and stay involved with the current University students as the community continues to thrive.

We’ll continue playing our part, whether it’s helping out with the Startup Showcase, speaking with incoming freshmen and parents, or of course providing a ‘window into entrepreneurship’ through our hands-on Packback student ambassador program at ISU.

Redbird Nation is a community on the rise. Let’s keep flying as alumni!”

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