Entrepreneurs at center-stage in ’40 Under 40′

Entrepreneurs and the investors who love them are front-and-center in the latest “40 Under 40,” Crain’s annual roundup of the Chicago area’s rising stars.

The Class of 2011 includes Joe Reynolds, founder of Chicago-based events-planning specialist Red Frog Events LLC. Founded in 2007, Red Frog has expanded from $50,000 in revenue to $10 million in 2010.

Lindsay Gaskins, founder of Marbles: The Brain Store, also makes the list. Ms. Gaskins opened her first full-fledged store in River North in October 2008. The retailer of brain-teasing games and puzzles now has 18 outlets.

Dhiraj Rajaram founded Northbrook-based data-analytics company Mu Sigma Inc. in 2004 and now has 1,500 employees spread around the world. He expects revenue to top $65 million this year.

Desiree Vargas-Wrigley co-founded GiveForward.com, a Chicago-based charitable fundraising site, which projects revenue will hit $1.5 million next year.

Brothers R. J. and Jerrod Melman, sons of restaurant-industry legend Richard Melman, are partners at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc., but they have some successes of their own, including Hub 51 and Paris Club.

Matthew Corrin is also blazing a trail in the food biz, launching salad and fresh-food restaurant Freshii in 2005. He now counts 50 locations in his chain and more than $50 million in annual sales.

Corri McFadden has turned a love of fashion into a thriving enterprise. Her startup, eDrop-off Inc., is an eBay power seller, auctioning everything from Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags to Ugg slippers. Her reality show, “House of Consignment,” comes to VH1 in January.

Mike Evans and Matt Maloney, co-founders of Chicago-based food-delivery site GrubHub, launched the company in 2004 and have seen it expand into virtually every major U.S. city since then.

BabbaCo founder Jessica Kim has reworked her business into a monthly subscription service that delivers educational and craft materials to parents of toddlers.

Kristen Amato launched her jewelry line in 2002. Today, her creations are sold in 280 stores and on Shop NBC. “I aspire,” she says, “to be a name brand.”

Bryan Johnson’s creation, Braintree Inc., processes online credit card transactions. The company received $34 million in venture-capital funding from Accel Partners in June.

The trio behind the Akira retail chain — Eric Hsueh, Erikka Wang and Jon Cotay — met as students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They opened their first store in Bucktown in 2002 and, since then, Akira has grown and built a following with a mix of clothing and accessories that are reasonably priced and on trend.

In August 2010, snack-food entrepreneur Pam Netzky took her first bag of Skinny Pop popcorn to Potash Markets in Lincoln Park. Potash picked it up, and customers began asking for more. Now, Skinny Pop is sold in more than 1,500 stores nationwide.

In six years, Tim McEnery’s winery and restaurant concept, Cooper’s Hawk, has gone from the original location in Orland Park to eight Midwest locations. He envisions 15 or more by 2013.

Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center chief Kevin Willer is putting his stamp on the small-business advocacy organization, narrowing its focus to Chicago (a decision that meant forgoing state funding) and putting a special emphasis on technology startups. “We’re working with as many entrepreneurs as we can, but we’re focused on those that can grow quickly and create jobs,” he says.

Excelerate Labs co-founder Sam Yagan has launched four companies — and how he’s sharing that experience with other aspiring entrepreneurs via the Chicago business incubator. He gives Excelerate alums a helping hand and a been-there perspective. But there’s no sugarcoating. “As Excelerate grads will tell you, Sam has a demanding, critical eye about new business ideas,” says Matthew McCall, a partner at Chicago-based venture-capital firm New World Ventures.

Paul Lee scopes investment opportunities for Chicago-based Lightbank, and Matthew Pritzker invests in a variety of ventures, including Chicago’s own HomeMade Pizza Co. And Jason Harinstein is the dealmaker-in-chief for Chicago startup-turned-global-powerhouse Groupon Inc.

Meet the entire Class of 2011.

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