Yesterday I had the chance to attend Chicago State of Innovation, an afternoon of panels and presentations talking about the state of the Chicago tech industry with a focus on founders, venture capitalists and more behind-the-scenes players. The sessions were informative and illuminating and left me with a few takeaways about the industry:
People Are Doing It Themselves: There’s a strong trend of people who feel a need, don’t see a solution that’s currently available and decide to just take matters into their own hands. That was exemplified by Michael Slaby, founder of Timshel, a company devoted to social-impact efforts. Throughout the day, though, one speaker after another kept talking about how the opportunities they wanted to take simply weren’t available to them. Or that the kinds of things they wanted to do weren’t offered by anyone else and so went and created it themselves.
Chicago Is a Power Player: It’s hard to ignore the elephants in the room that are San Francisco/Bay Area and New York. But Chicago is a tech industry force to be reckoned with. Not only does it have an active community of founders and funders for just about anything you might be wanting to do but it has the talent to support those ideas. Yes, Chicago might be losing population, but that doesn’t mean smart, creative people aren’t still here. In fact one speaker said that Chicago loses to the coasts 3-4 people after the age of 20 for every one it gains but then the reverse is true after age 27 as people return to Chicago.
Diversity Is a Priority: There was a lot of talk about diversifying not only the workforce but also the pipeline of founders and funders. That’s of huge importance not just to the current marketplace but also to the future as a more diverse set of companies now brings in a more diverse pool of talent who are mentored to become the next generation of founders and so on down the line. One venture capitalist said nine out of 10 founders in her portfolio were women, which is a fantastic statistic opening up all sorts of potential and just one example of what people were talking about.
Commitment to Creativity: The day actually opened with Kickstarter cofounder Charles Adler – an example of the “left Chicago then came back to make an impact here” trend – talking about the importance of creativity. His points included mentions of how the workplace has a tendency to industrialize not only productivity but also people and how important it is to break out of that. To counter that he’s launching Lost Arts, a space in the West Loop dedicated to bringing together a diverse group of people to come in, discover or refine a creative skill and then work with others to make it even better. That focus on getting people out and bringing them together has a lot of potential to not only surface big ideas but also provides an important outlet for those whose day jobs may not be conducive to their creative skills.
Many of the tools the internet has been built on have been focused on democratizing content and amplifying an individual’s voice. #CHISOI — Chris Thilk (@ChrisThilk) May 18, 2016
Many of these themes were repeated in the lobby conversations I had with folks during the breaks. These people were committed to making things happen in Chicago and making them happen now. The energy from the attendees as they milled around, asked questions and got to know each other. It showed me that far from being an also-ran compared to the coasts, Chicago has a thriving, active and powerful tech community all its own that can run neck-and-neck with other markets.
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