Let’s call it the Winklevoss dilemma. You’ve got it, the next big Internet sensation. The only problem is, well, you need a technical co-founder. Former Northwestern ASG president Neal Sales-Griffin (SESP ’09) thinks he can help. As the CEO of Code Academy, an intensive three-month programming course that attracts applicants from all over the world to their classrooms in Chicago, Sales-Griffin wants to equip entrepreneurs with the skills to make their ideas an Internet reality.
Sales-Griffin was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. Although he lived only thirty minutes away from Evanston, he arrived his freshman year at Northwestern sight unseen. That being said, he had little trouble acclimating to college life. After moving into Ayers CCI, a residential college centered on commerce and industry, Sales-Griffin found his way to some of the business organizations on campus. As jobs in investment banking and consulting promised the economic freedom he had always dreamed of, Sales-Griffin naturally gravitated towards the groups that aligned themselves with these industries. In particular, he got involved with the “Nugget Group,” a collection of finance-oriented students who ran an on-campus investment fund, and then later became a founding member of the Institute for Student Business Education (Full Disclosure: NBR is a product group of ISBE). Having established himself in the student business community, he also gained attention for his work ethic in the classroom.
“I had never taken a real class before,” Sales-Griffin said, explaining the C- he received in Introduction to Macroeconomics in his first quarter at Northwestern. Undeterred, Sales-Griffin said he “worked three hours later than everyone in Micro and killed it.”
Two upperclassmen, Rishi Shah and Derek Moeller, took notice. Before Sales-Griffin knew it, Shah and Moeller had invited him to become a member of the venture backed start-up Context Media, a company that provides LCD monitors with patient-specific information to health care facilities. That summer, he worked in their office downtown in sales and marketing while taking night classes back at Northwestern. The success of the company – Context Media now operates in all fifty states – ultimately forced Sales-Griffin’s hand. By the end of the summer, Moeller had graduated and Shah had dropped out of school. Sales-Griffin was asked to do the same, but he opted to remain at Northwestern.
“It took a lot for me to go to college so I felt like I needed to finish,” he recalled over five years later.
He no longer worked for Context Media, but Sales-Griffin had been bit by the entrepreneurial bug. Back on campus as a sophomore, he “bullied” his way into an entrepreneurship class for juniors and seniors taught by Troy Henikoff, a person who would go on to become CEO of Excelerate Labs and one of Sales-Griffin’s professional mentors.
He also decided he was going to fix the barbershop industry. As a college student, even with some income leftover from his Context Media days, he knew that going to the barbershop twice a month, for twenty dollars a visit, was not sustainable. He also realized that being an entrepreneur meant “solving problems for people”, so he devised a business plan that would appease both profit-driven barbers and college students who wanted to look sharp without breaking the bank. He then began the process of peddling it to every barber he could find, eventually entering into a partnership with one of them. Helping manage barbershops on the South Side, however, soon became too demanding for a full-time Northwestern student, so as he did with Context Media, he gave up the venture in order to return his attention to his schoolwork and a more traditional career in finance.
After working the summer after his junior year at the Chicago venture capital firm OCA Ventures, Sales-Griffin spent his senior year serving as the ASG president and wrapping up his degree in Learning and Organizational Change. When graduation rolled around, the man who, for four years had to be among the busiest on campus, walked across the stage with no plans for employment. Instead, he spent that summer “working out and playing video games,” and that following fall, served as “the first alumni SafeRide driver in Northwestern history.” Nearly six months after graduating, the longtime videogame enthusiast had packed his bags for Seattle and was prepared to work at the intersection of education and gaming. A few weeks before he was to leave, however, he went out to lunch with Harper Reed, who at the time was the CTO of Threadless. The lunch soon turned into an ambush by a number of VPs from the Chicago innovation firm Sandbox Industries. They offered him a job in their incubator division and ultimately convinced him to stay in Chicago.
His experience with Sandbox taught him several things, but his biggest takeaway was the respect that coders commanded; they were the people putting ideas into action. Where the coders were coveted, he viewed an analyst like himself as more or less dispensable. Then it hit him. If he wanted to have the financially secure, independent, and impactful lifestyle he had always wanted, he needed to learn how to code. After this revelation, Sales-Griffin decided to leave Sandbox. He then called Northwestern’s 2010 ASG president, Mike McGee, a person who had a general background in graphic design, to share with him his plans. The two pledged to spend the next year teaching themselves as much as they could about web development with the hope of building a valuable product along the way.
“For over a year we struggled through anything we could get our hands on to learn these skills. After that we realized there had to be a better way,” recalls Sales-Griffin. And just like that, Code Academy was born. Well, almost. The two had to decline Harper Reed’s offer to join the Obama re-election campaign after he became the campaign’s CTO.
Code Academy began taking applications, for both students and instructors, in March of last year. They determined that they needed fifteen students to cover their expenses for the first session; they ended up receiving applications from eighty-eight, and the classes have grown each application cycle since then. What’s more impressive is that sixty percent of Code Academy applicants are from prospective students outside Chicago, even though imitator programs have sprouted up in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.
They are also not just aspiring entrepreneurs. Code Academy students boast professional backgrounds in real estate, finance, consulting, and even computer science. Sales-Griffin serves as CEO and McGee operates under the title of Chief Creative Officer. Looking back on everything that has become of Code Academy, Sales-Griffin emphasized that although the company has been “profitable from day one, we’ve also been impactful from day one.”
People who know Sales-Griffin aren’t surprised. Entrepreneurs solve problems, and Neal Sales-Griffin is an entrepreneur.