"They are really trying to encourage entrepreneurship in this country, They're doing that in addition to running their business." -- Tom Golisano

We can probably legitimately say we're the largest source of funding for self-employment education in the world," remarks John Hughes, cohead of the ColemanFannie May Candies Foundation. "But that's from spending $13 million in 10 years -- not enough money in terms of the efforts that need to be made. On the other hand, you don't see a lot of large corporations funding that type of education, because they think they'll be encouraging their people to leave."

Both Hughes and his partner, Jean Thorne, have made it their mission to pick up where they think corporate America has left off. In large part, it's because they're accidental entrepreneurs who found that running a business was not as mysterious as they'd been led to believe. Their trial by fire began in 1980 when Thorne's husband, Denton, died; he had been the head of the Fannie May candy operation, in Chicago. The next year two other key managers also died, leaving behind Thorne, the majority shareholder, and Hughes, the financial officer. Jointly, they took the reins.

At the same time, they began considering what to do with a foundation that had been established by the company's earlier owners, Dorothy and J. D. Stetson Coleman. The Colemans had given out small grants to groups such as the Girl Scouts, but for many years the trust-turned-foundation had been essentially inactive.

Doubling the number of Fannie May stores and expanding into mail order was the business focus of Thorne and Hughes during the 1980s, but a close second was learning the ins and outs of evaluating and funding grants. In the past 10 years Thorne and Hughes have turned the Coleman-Fannie May Candies Foundation from a quiet idea into an aggressive project, financing cancer research, facilities at Chicago-area hospitals, and scholarships. They've given out $45 million while growing the foundation's asset base to $65 million. Along with medical research and health care, seeding entrepreneurship education has been one of their main designs.

"We're not hard-core entrepreneurship teachers," says Thorne. "We're more of an awareness program." To that end, the foundation has funded ventures including

* endowment of $5 million plus for five university chairs in entrepreneurship;

* support, with $1,000 grants, of entrepreneurship programs at some 50 colleges and secondary schools;

* development through Chicago State University of a self-employment teaching program for high schools;

* traveling themselves, a few times a month, to campuses to speak about entrepreneurship.

As they tell it, the crusade sometimes makes them feel as if they're screaming into the wind. "Most universities are simply raising students to go to work for major corporations," contends Hughes. "If students say they want to climb to the top of General Motors," he says, "we want them to know that their chances of doing that are about as good as those of becoming an NBA basketball player."

Working without additional staff -- Thorne and Hughes read all the proposals and do site visits themselves -- they've seen the world become a bit more receptive to the foundation's education efforts. When the first chair at the University of Illinois at Chicago was endowed 10 years ago, people didn't quite know what to make of it. "Now, even though they can't spell it, people have a general idea of what entrepreneurship is," says Thorne.

"A lot of people called the 1980s the decade of the entrepreneur," muses Hughes. "I don't think so. I think it was just the tip of the iceberg. During the '80s people were reawakened, and I think the '90s will really be the entrepreneurial decade." As for the experience the two are giving students, "it's kind of like religion," says Thorne. "Once you plant the seed, you don't know when it's going to take. It may start immediately, or it may take 10 years. They may go to work for a corporation, then become dissatisfied and feel their talents aren't being used. They may be fired. And they may think, I remember somebody saying something about starting a business."