6 Ways to Built the Entrepreneurial Community and 4 Easy Ways to Plug In

Last night, I was lucky to get the chance to speak about the local entrepreneurship scene to the Chicago Booth Marketing Roundtable.  I did a very short powerpoint, and then we had a lot of time for Q+A.

Entrepreneurship (Photo credit: Michael Lewkowitz)

Q+A is hugely important to me, and I almost would rather do without the first part.  Not because I don’t like speaking-but because I am more interested in trying to answer questions or solve the problems of the audience.  If they cared enough to show up at night to try and engage me, I ought to at least take the time to engage with them.

We had around 40-50 people.  I bet in 2007, we wouldn’t have gotten 10.

When I speak to groups, there are six things I want them to remember and leave with if they want to help grow the entrepreneurial community.

  1. Become a customer of a startup
  2. Introduce a startup to a potential customer
  3. Become a mentor, give free advice to startups on your area of expertise
  4. Talk about startups with your friends-make people aware
  5. Startup a company
  6. Invest, on your own (not advisable if you are a rookie), through an angel group, or put some money in a fund.  

There is something happening here in the midwest. You can feel it.  If you look hard enough, you will find it.  In Chicago, it’s easy to find.  Smaller towns may be more challenging, but if they are within two to three hours of Chicago, they can plug in here and things can go back and forth.

For example, Madison, Champaign, Ann Arbor, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and even Peoria have burgeoning startup scenes.  Peoria launches a cutting edge innovation center for medical technology today.  First company in, Vimedicus.

Many people are intimidated by trying to break through what they see as a smokescreen to getting into the group.   It’s understandable, because it’s so new here.  How do they fit?  How do they add value?  How do they plug in?  How do they make acquaintances and connect?

The answer to the first question is easy.  No one categorizes you. You fit how you want.   Everyone can plug into the ecosystem in their unique way.  At this point, simply talking about it among your friends adds value.

Expose yourself to the entrepreneur community by working at a co-working space for a few days.   Breath the air.  Feel it and check it out with your own eyes and ears.

In Chicago, you can find a co-work space at Desktimeapp.  You can co-work in a smaller location like The Coop, and you can co-work at 1871.  It’ll cost you $20-$30 bucks and you will meet independent professionals.  Connections will be made.

The next thing you can do is go to a Technori pitch event.   You will meet other entrepreneurs and other interested parties.  You start to build a network. Technori also hosts Friday happy hours from time to time.  Go to one.  Meet people.  Don’t stay on an island.

While a lot of entrepreneurship is technical, at its core its a people business and you need to press the flesh to make meaningful connections.

At these events, if you hear of a way to help out, volunteer.  Volunteer for free. Don’t charge.  If you can connect someone to someone, do it for free.  It’s the hyper connectivity that begins to create value in an ecosystem.

Charging for connecting becomes a tax on the system and makes the entrepreneurial marketplace less efficient.  This isn’t investment banking.  No one ever got rich charging a bunch of entrepreneurs.  Instead, when you charge for things you are leeching capital out of the system.

A unique way to get exposure is to attend or teach a Dabble class.  Why?  Because you will begin to expose yourself to the ecosystem in a unique way.  As a teacher, you can begin to build a reputation.  As a student, you get to learn about things you are interested in with others that have the same interests.  Because it is an in person experience, you will make a physical connection.

Plug in online at Built In Chicago.  It’s Chicago’s online tech hub.  Create a profile and surf it like you do Facebook.   Add a blog post about something you are passionate about or something you are looking for, or something you are willing to do for other people.

The following are more formal programs for you to add a lot of value.  Contact them and ask to volunteer your time.  They will likely ask you to qualify yourself, so be prepared.

The entrepreneurship programs at college campuses.  Here are the local ones:

Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship

Levy Center for Entrepreneurship

Coleman Center for Entrepreneurship

Knapp Center for Entrepreneurship

UIC Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies

If you can’t volunteer, donate money to them so they can carry out their mission.

Chicago has two great accelerators.  These are hyper intense places where ten hand picked companies get help launching their businesses.

TechStars Chicago (which used to be Excelerate Labs)

Impact Engine

Contact them directly and speak to the principles about how you can help out.

There are still other ways.  In Chicago, we have a first of its kind program called The Junto Institute.  It teaches leadership skills in a unique way to startup companies.  Consider it an experience for companies post accelerator. Volunteer there.

Blogs to get reference items from:



Looking for a co-founder?  Try this site.

Founder Match

At it’s absolute core, entrepreneurship is a people business.  While most of it has a technical aspect and creates connections digitally, the heart of the engine is people working with people to make something great and change the way we do things in the world.

Entrepreneurship only works if you get involved.  It’s a merit based community, open to everyone.  But, you have to take the first step.

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