Late in 2015, a group of tech leaders convened at Chicago-headquartered Gogo and promised to take a trip down to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The objective: extending the city’s ThinkChicago initiative to showcase Chicago’s technology startups, with the hope that students will take up jobs here instead of fleeing to the coasts after graduation. Making good on this promise, Mayor Rahm Emanuel kicked off a national roadshow at UIUC and Stanford University last week, accompanied by some of Chicago’s most prominent tech leaders and ambassadors. Along with the Mayor’s Office and the participating companies, the University of Illinois is a key partner for the program.
An overflowing lecture hall and an informal networking session with 26 rapidly growing Chicago companies marked the first stop at UIUC. In introducing the event, lllinois engineering dean Andreas Cangellaris called UIUC engineers “Illinois’ gift to Silicon Valley”, and singled out efforts to make Chicago the country’s “number one destination for innovation and entrepreneurship. In a panel discussion, Mayor Emanuel, joined by founders of tech companies Cleversafe and Grubhub, and emerging startups PartySlate and Xaptum, touted everything from the connectedness of the city to his oft-repeated stat on a truly diversified economy, noting that no industry covers more than 13 percent of the city’s total economic output.
Chris Gladwin, founder of Cleversafe, highlighted the “level of talent [in Chicago] that wants to stay, and has the discipline and knowledge to feed off each other.” Matt Maloney of Grubhub noted, “It’s a hell of a lot more fun to build a company in Chicago than the Valley. People have spirit and vitality, and just want to solve cool problems and work together.” The entrepreneurs also singled out machine learning, healthcare informatics and social marketing networks as industries that Chicago is uniquely positioned to boost.
An event for Stanford University undergraduates followed a few days later and coincided with a talk the Mayor was scheduled to give on leadership at the Stanford Business School. This time he was accompanied by Outcome Health (formerly Context Media) cofounder Shradha Agarwal, serial entrepreneur Sam Yagan, Chicago Ventures’ Kevin Willer, and Hyde Park Angels’ Peter Wilkins, among others.
A quick glance at the #ThinkChicago hashtag on Twitter reveals historically positive feedback from participating companies, (and perhaps more importantly, students) for its flagship programs centered around Lollapalooza and Chicago Ideas Week. Over the course of the program (2011 – 2016), ThinkChicago has hosted more than 1,150 individual students from over 70 institutions across the country, though representation tends to be heavy from Illinois-area schools (ThinkChicago does not provide accommodation).
Surveys of ThinkChicago 2016 participants (notably conducted directly after the program, rather than closer to student graduation) found that the percentage of program alumni who indicated they were “likely to very likely” move to Chicago for work post-graduation rose from 53 percent to 87 percent.
ThinkChicago alumni have also gone to found or work for startups such as Tovala, Moneythink, Rithmio, Civis Analytics and Gogo (jobs that they landed via the hiring fair at ThinkChicago). The ThinkChicago website (specifically, the “Social” section) lists several testimonials of students who completed the program.
“The objective behind taking the program national is not just to attract graduating technology talent, but also to appeal to Chicago-native alumni who are now mid career professionals working elsewhere — and encourage them to consider tech entrepreneurship in Chicago,” said Abin Kuriakose, program manager at ChicagoNEXT to Chicago Inno. “We saw tremendous support and engagement at alumni receptions (organized with help from previous ThinkChicago participants) as well as at meetings with university leadership and student leaders,” he said.
Future plans, he added, are to take this roadshow to Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as nearby Purdue University and University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Image via Greg Rothstein/1871
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