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Howard Tullman’s Flashpoint Academy: A Digital-Arts Alternative to the Four-Year College Degree

MR. NONSTOP: Chicago’s hardest-working serial entrepreneur—the man who remade Kendall College and gave Rahm Emanuel a place to call home—is busy creating a digital-arts alternative to the four-year college degree

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Howard Tullman
“I see parents so stressed because their kid isn’t getting into [the University of] Illinois or an Ivy League school. so they send them to these no-name schools in the middle of nowhere because they think their kids have to get a four-year education,” Tullman says. “The kids don’t want to go. It’s a huge waste of time and money.
I’m getting Howard Tullman’s 15-minute blitzkrieg tour of Tribeca Flashpoint, the media-arts academy on Clark Street in the Loop. It’s a gusty blur of names and high-tech gizmos and eye-popping factoids: a sound studio where students wrote tracks for Rock Band, the 55-seat screening room where Governor Quinn gathered his finance team to watch campaign commercials, the game lab with the Eraser road map that Tullman based on the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, and another lab where students worked on Club SuperStar, the Facebook game that zoomed past 125,000 users in the first two months. Those Steelcase chairs in the lobby? Developed in animation class. That kid hunched over a console? Finishing a Microsoft promo disk to be presented to Congress.

“We’re an innovation lab as much as a school,” says Tullman, Flashpoint’s 65-year-old president and CEO, as we head for the Matrix überclassroom and its oversize plasma TV, which has been described as an “iPad Touch on steroids.” Wielding the remote like a magus, he flips from live feeds on the Daley Plaza Jumbotron to augmented-reality explosions to the viral video Flashpoint students did for McDonald’s.

“If you picked the wrong college, it’s never too late to start again,” reads one of dozens of ads that Tullman wrote and that emblazon the school’s lobby, an apt summons since students—or their parents—are heeding the call in droves.

When Flashpoint opened four years ago, there were 100 students. Today, enrollment has jumped to 500, each forking over an annual $25,000 to get an associate’s degree and the inside track on jobs that range from game designers and animators to sound engineers and filmmakers. There are talks of starting branches in Ireland, Paris, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and, of course, New York—because last April, Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Enterprises signed on as a full-share partner. That infusion of cash, plus Tribeca’s prestige, will likely be a big boost as Flashpoint gets set to jump a key hurdle for accreditation this spring.

“We need to revisit the idea of high-end, high-tech vocational education,” says Tullman, now settled behind his desk, while his eyes flit to the burst of computer blips that signal nonstop e-mail. “It’s going to be where the jobs are at. DeVry [the national for-profit college with several locations in Chicagoland] is no more about repairing refrigerators than Kendall is about learning to become a short-order cook.”

Kendall College, the four-year school in Evanston best known for its culinary program, was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2003 when Tullman was recruited to save it, sell it, or shut it down. In the space of 90 days, he raised $60 million; in just 90 more, he rebuilt the entire campus at a shuttered Sara Lee building on Goose Island. He revamped the curriculum; he installed top-of-the-line equipment, courtesy of corporate sponsors like Kraft, Sub-Zero, and CookTek; he added TV studios and started a restaurant that is now Zagat rated. Two years later, Tullman took it out of the oven and sold it.

Tullman is the champ of serial entrepreneurs. He started his first public company in a tiny office at the corner of LaSalle and Ontario Streets. The idea—prosaic now, but this was back in 1980, before desktop PCs were commonplace—was to create a computerized database for auto insurers to value wrecked or stolen cars based on dealer inventory. Today, CCC Information Services processes two-thirds of all U.S. auto insurance claims. It occupies three acres, more than half the ninth floor of the Merchandise Mart. Tullman sold the company decades ago for about $100 million.

He has also started a premier online music megasite (Tunes.com, which fetched $170 million) and launched the Rolling Stone Network, containing 30 years of performance and music archives. He was tapped to helm Worldwide Xceed Group, a digital strategy provider, which he revamped and sold. He founded Imagination Pilots, the source of half a dozen top CD-ROM games and adventures (all conceived, designed, and principally written by Tullman). He pioneered a business to track customer satisfaction and rescued Experiencia, the flagship Chicago training lab for middle-school students, with a $5 million infusion of private capital. By Tullman’s own count, he has started 12 companies—most later sold for a serious profit.

But wait—there’s more.


Photograph: Taylor Castle

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