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After midnight, Donnelly discovers passion for entrepreneurism

Barry McNamara
10/07/2011
Another Saturday night, another packed house at AfterDark, the downtown nightclub owned and operated by MC student Jack Donnelly '12.
Some people said that starting a successful nightclub in Monmouth could never be done.

Fortunately for Monmouth College senior Jack Donnelly, the people that mattered weren’t among those naysayers.

“It was a domino effect,” said Donnelly, of the six-month progression from concept to reality of AfterDark, a dance club primarily for high school and college students. “We just kept moving on, and no one ever said ‘No.’”

Two of the big “Yes” responses came from visiting assistant professor of political economy and commerce Lee Miller, and from Donnelly’s father, Christopher.

Last fall, Donnelly was a student in Miller’s “Introduction to Entrepreneurism” class. The professor asked his students to come up with a business plan related to something that could be done in Monmouth. Donnelly quickly thought of a recent experience on campus.

“I threw a party the week before the project got started,” he said. “It got shut down because of too many people. I wasn’t upset with the college, but it just got me to thinking that if you’re not 21, you can’t hang out at one time with more than 10 people due to the fire code.”

A Chicago resident, the well-traveled Donnelly not only knows that city, but New York and some major metropolitan areas in Europe, as well. He began to envision a nightclub similar to ones he’d visited that would implement the best concepts from each of them, including a water wall, which is located on the lower level.

“It was right around this time last year,” said Donnelly, when he was interviewed in early October. “In fact, I just looked at my Facebook status update from a year ago, and it said, ‘Meeting with President Ditzler went well.’”

“At Monmouth, our goal is to help our students discern their calling in life,” said Ditzler. “By ‘calling,’ we mean the things they enjoy doing, that they can do well and that through lending their talents make a difference in people’s lives.”

The president continued, “Jack came to me, along with some of his closest faculty advisers, and we all encouraged him to follow his passion. But it did not end there. We supported him with alumni referrals and recommendations. One alumnus, city administrator Eric Hanson (’98), made an incredible impact on Jack and guided him along the process of getting his venture off the ground. Our stewardship at Monmouth for our students is not a passive one.”

Donnelly not only had to pitch the idea to MC’s president, but also his “angel investor” – his father.

“I did the business plan, and I researched it a lot,” said Donnelly. “I talked to my dad, and he said he had 20 questions for me. He gave them to me, and I got back to him about an hour later with my answers. He was satisfied.”

Donnelly’s father is now part of his son’s successful team. A judge in Cook County, he handles many of the legal issues, especially contracts. Donnelly’s mother, a tax accountant, helps him with the books, and his sister, Maggie, a 2006 Monmouth graduate, uses her organizational skills to help keep the business moving forward.

Still, much of the work falls on Donnelly’s shoulders. The owner/manager does everything from ordering speakers and lights to completing the work schedules.

“I know everything that happens here,” he said.

A staff of approximately 20 MC students handles the rest of the duties, with senior Matt Verner of South Holland, Ill., coming closest to fulfilling the role of “right-hand man.”

“Matt’s always here when we’re open,” said Donnelly. “He’s the head of our security, and he’s always upstairs.”

“Upstairs” features a spacious dance floor and DJ area, and it also has a smaller gathering space overlooking Monmouth’s Public Square. Twenty different kinds of lights create a unique atmosphere, including black lights, which was the theme of a recent event. MC students Dylan Docherty of Monticello, Ill., and Christopher Martinez of Chicago are the regular DJs, a responsibility that Donnelly – who is literally a “Jack” of all trades – can also handle in a pinch.

“It was kind of a fluke to get the building,” said Donnelly. “We looked at a couple other buildings. When we saw this one, the realtor assumed we were only interested in the downstairs. I asked if I could go upstairs and look, and of course, it was way different than it is now. It took a couple different designs,” but eventually Donnelly was able to produce the modern, open feel he desired. Once construction began, Donnelly even assisted the contractors, doing “whatever they needed help with.”

With all that room to operate, the days of being limited to 10 people at his parties are long gone.

“Opening night was huge,” said Donnelly of last spring’s big event. “We were about at capacity, which is 450 people. We’ve been averaging about 250 people, and we had between 350 and 400 for the first night the students were back this fall.”

AfterDark is an appropriate name, and Donnelly might have also chosen “After Midnight.” That’s the time his club opens for college students on Saturday nights, with dancing until 3 a.m. High school students have access to the club on Saturdays from 8 to 11:30 p.m. AfterDark is also available for private parties.

“I’m pretty excited for Homecoming weekend (Oct. 22),” Donnelly said. “A student rapper is going to be here, and we’ve heard a lot of our friends and alumni are going to be back. That night is going to be cool.”

Many business owners spend so much time on the job that they say they live at their workplace. Donnelly does that figuratively, logging lots of hours, but he also does so in the literal sense in an apartment in the back of the building. His time commitment to AfterDark means he will take an extra semester to finish his business and political science double major.

When that’s behind him, Donnelly’s not sure what will happen next.

“My brother is a pastor in New Mexico, and we have a ranch out there,” he said. “God’s put it in my heart to be out there at some point. I’d entertain the idea of selling the club. But right now, we’re just getting it going.”

No matter what the future holds, Donnelly knows the experience has set him up for future success.

“When it came to going to college, my dad kind of forced my hand and made sure I went,” said Donnelly. “Now that I’ve done this, I’m getting real experience, not just something you’d learn in a class. It’s something different to go out and do it and put your money on the table. The bills are paid, we’re doing well and I’ve learned a lot from it. I’m sure it will help me in whatever I do next.”