Persisting to the Finish Line and Giving Back

For the exceptionally entrepreneurial and energetic, life’s road is rarely straightforward—or boring. For new alumna Karen Cockrill (economics 2012) the decision to fly to Chicago each week from her home and business in Colorado in order to finish her degree was simply “something that had to be done.”

Karen Cockrill

Student and LAS donor Karen Cockrill during spring semester 2012. Photo by Joshua Clark

While doing what had to be done this past spring, the successful young entrepreneur and returning student noted that there was a need for additional student-use computers on campus and saw a donor opportunity with direct impact. Meetings with Assistant Dean for Advancement Arnaud Buttin and Craig Jackson, executive director of the College’s IT unit, resulted in a donation of ten Acer laptops to the UIC Writing Center. “It was a way to help current students succeed,” said Cockrill. The additional laptops will expand the center’s student services, easing the crunch for online research and writing projects. She is also the newest member of the LAS Board of Visitors, joining a cohort of alumni and friends of the college who volunteer their time to meet twice yearly with Dean Astrida Orle Tantillo, consulting on development and alumni engagement.

When I’m looking for someone to be my counterpart—someone I can depend on as a business associate—communication is key. The writing requirements in an LAS education translate into business very quickly.

Cockrill first came to UIC as a junior-year transfer student majoring in biochemistry. “I really enjoyed the hard sciences—I still do. But I realized that an undergraduate degree in biochem meant life in a laboratory. That was not me; I needed more room for creativity,” said the Houston, Texas native who began her undergraduate studies at Chicago’s DePaul University. “I considered a business degree, but decided to stay in LAS and do my degree in economics.

“It’s worth saying that I had a serious case of senioritis toward the end. Looking back, I did not respect where I was and the opportunity that I had. I had the skills to do better in school, but I wasn’t focused.” Cockrill returned to Houston in 2003 for a market research job in the chemical industry. “I left UIC with a pretty embarrassing record, but at the time I was really burnt out. I had a great job waiting for me back home, so I took it without looking back. I did very well in that position, but after about two years I realized there wasn’t much room for creative growth.”

Cockrill, newly married, found herself at a crossroads: she had a job offer across town that would require a massive commute as well as daytime walking services for the couple’s dogs.

Cockrill and her dog Charlie in the snow

Cockrill and her dog Charlie. Image courtesy of Cockrill

“We couldn’t find a good solution to the situation but I had the entrepreneurial spirit. Honestly, that was likely why I wasn’t a ‘good’ student; I didn’t follow directions very well. Having the inner gumption to do something different doesn’t always match up very well with academia.” True to her nature, and with her husband’s encouragement, she decided to launch a business. Snaggle Foot Dog Walks & Pet Care was born.

“I was leaving the corporate gig that everyone wants to become a dog walker! Snaggle Foot began as a small local business, but I wanted to do it right and provide the best pet-care service possible. There is a big trust issue; clients are giving you a key to their home and leaving you to care for their pet. We built a good business model—did background checks and drug screening on employees and serious training including pet CPR and first aid. We have contracts with the clients, liability insurance and bonding policies. We have an online schedule so that the client can go in and see when things are being done.”

At first Cockrill was the lone service-provider but within a couple of months she had four employees, and 10 within a year. She was still walking dogs, doing the initial consultation and managing the cadre of dog walkers. They were averaging 400-500 visits per month and Cockrill realized that she had national franchise potential. For the next year she devoted her efforts to making that happen and the first Snaggle Foot franchise was sold in 2008.

Having turned her local company into a national franchise, Cockrill briefly considered law school so that she could one day practice franchise law. That was when she discovered that she never completed the requirements to get her UIC degree. Although she had taken more than enough credit hours, there was a problem with her GPA in economics. “While it wasn’t a huge shock, I was really mad at myself.” Once Snaggle Foot was solidly up and running—there will soon be 20 franchises nationwide—Cockrill focused on putting closure on this unfinished business.

“What I’m doing is admittedly extreme. Because of my grades, I couldn’t transfer credit and finish my degree in Colorado. I looked at online options and getting credit for life experience. Ultimately, there was no other option but to physically take a class at UIC and to ace it. I had to decide between getting an apartment in Chicago for four months and running the business from here or flying back and forth each week. We crunched the numbers and it was cheaper for me to fly in, stay in a hotel and take the class—and, there are all those frequent flyer miles.”

Cockrill has come to fully appreciate the skills acquired through a liberal arts education. “When I’m looking for someone to be my counterpart—someone I can depend on as a business associate—communication is key. The writing requirements in an LAS education translate into business very quickly.” She believes that cultural literacy is equally important. “As a business person, if I had to pick one course that had the most influence on me I’d have to choose my class in comparative religion where we studied the beliefs and cultures of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. You meet all of these folks out in the real word and I refer back to what I learned in this class all the time. This knowledge is very important.”

Karen Cockrill and her dog Charlie

Cockrill and Charlie at Maroon Bells in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Cockrill

Cockrill successfully completed her coursework and received her degree on May 6. Now she’s back home in Colorado building her business, spending time with her husband Kenneth and their dog Charlie—and undoubtedly scoping out the next big adventure.