A Challenge For The Chicago Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel went to Champaign on a mission. He wanted to persuade hacks from the engineering school to come to Chicago. I am happy he went. Emanuel is doing what he can to support a scalable start up entrepreneurial ecosystem in Chicago. I’d love to accompany him to my alma mater next time.

Crain’s wrote about the visit. The article is interesting. But it’s interesting to me for a couple of reasons. One, the way it ends. The head of the U of I Computer Science Department said,

“We need to do a better job of exposing Chicago to our students,” Mr. Rutenbar said. “Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter are in their faces all the time. We need to work to get Chicago to break through.”
For that to happen, however, Tuesday’s visit needs to be the first of many. “The big thing is consistency,” he said. “You need to come early, come often and bring your A game. There’s an arms race for talent. These are uber-geeks. This is the place where people who founded Netscape, YouTube, PayPal and Yelp.

Meanwhile, here is what one student said.

Mr. Chae, a 20-year-old junior from Naperville, spent his summer writing code for a startup at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
“I don’t want to go anywhere else,” he said, though his sister works for startups in Chicago as a freelance designer. California’s weather is a plus, but it’s the startup energy and tech vibe that he found intoxicating. He bumped into Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook at a Starbucks and did countless hackathons on weekends.
“There are so many things you’re exposed to just by living there,” he said. “I met people from Google, Facebook and Twitter constantly.”

It’s not just the money that is attracting students to the coast, but the chance to develop themselves in an established ecosystem. This is very Coaseian thinking. They are doing the best that they can do for themselves, and the decision they make is best for everyone.

The hackers idols are bumping into them in coffee shops and interacting with them on a personal level. Are those similar people in Chicago doing that? Are the leaders of the community in Chicago accessible. Can they get down to the casual level of the students and identify with them so they become real people and not just someone in print?

That’s one thing we need. Built In Chicago has hosted quarterly lunches with digital leaders. We are making some formal progress. But we need to do it informally. In Silicon Valley, you know which breakfast place to go on which day of the week to access the person or mentor you need. How do you do that in Chicago? But, we can consciously build it.

Successful start ups need to host more hackathons. The hackers working here need to recruit the new hackers. Invite anyone that wants to play. Digital companies ought to have some type of reward to employees that participate and host or organize hackathons. We could even do virtual hackathons.

The University of Illinois has tremendous engineering talent. But so does Purdue, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Ohio State. There isn’t a reason a large percentage of them couldn’t migrate here if we make the ecosystem welcoming to them. Chicago’s digital companies have an obvious stake. But so do the big corporations. CME Group is a tech company. McDonald’s can use the talent. So can the medical companies. Boeing certainly can use engineers. Those companies need to participate too.

Brad Feld has said you build communities through entrepreneurs. I might disagree on the seminal moments of the community-but we are far past that moment. Chicago’s start up scene now reads like a novel. We all read the introduction and introduced some of the characters. The book has hit its inflection point and the plot is thickening. The question remains, do we finish the book? Or do we put it down and go to something else?

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