Wednesday, November 02, 2011


Melissa Harris' Chicago Confidential
 Women in this group certainly know their Chicago

Know Your Chicago takes dozens on tour of city's entrepreneurial scene

Melissa Harris' Chicago Confidential

November 3, 2011

They've been just about everywhere.

They've eaten beef stew with prisoners at the Cook County jail. They've sailed over the electrified carp barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. And, using their connections to the developer's family, they've toured the new Radisson hotel inside the Aqua Tower while boxes were still being unpacked.

It's hard to tell the 50 organizers of Know Your Chicago — which curates field trips for educated (and often affluent) women — about a place they haven't heard of. But I was curious whether the group's latest tour, focused on Chicago's entrepreneurial scene, would unearth any new information.

It did.

Until Tuesday's tour, I did not know that the Hyde Park Angels, a group of investors in early-stage technology companies, had achieved its first exit. Last month, Deerfield-based Textura bought for an undisclosed amount. Both are large construction-related technology firms.

I also did not know that Linda Darragh of the Booth School of Business and Jamie Jones of the Kellogg School of Management are raising money to launch a social entrepreneurship accelerator. (Social entrepreneurs try to make money while solving social and environmental problems; accelerators provide mentoring to entrepreneurs and help them prepare to raise venture capital, in exchange for a stake in their companies.)

And I did not know that secretive meetings between Motorola and Google on building phones for Google's Android operating system started as far back as 2006-07, under the leadership of former CEO Ed Zander and long before Sanjay Jha arrived at Motorola from California in flip-flops.

Among the 150 people on Tuesday's tour was Mary Galvin, a Know Your Chicago board member and wife of the late Motorola CEO Bob Galvin.

Know Your Chicago was started in 1948 by Mary Ward Wolkonsky, a widow of the chairman of Commonwealth Edison Co. who later married the medical director of Amoco. She was a society maven, helping launch the women's boards at the Art Institute, Lyric Opera and University of Chicago, but also an ardent supporter of Planned Parenthood.

In her 2002 Tribune obituary, friend Ellen O'Connor described how, on a trip to see the new wing of Milwaukee's art museum, most of the ladies ordered iced tea with lunch. Wolkonsky ordered a beer, explaining that's what's done when you go to Milwaukee.

O'Connor's husband, James, later became chairman of Commonwealth Edison. And Tuesday morning, dressed in a long, elegant cream coat, O'Connor boarded one of Know Your Chicago's three chartered buses parked outside the Olgivie Transportation Center.

"I've never seen so many men on our tour," Ellen O'Connor said.

"Why do you think that is, Ellen?" Judith Block, a Northwestern University trustee, asked, from the seat catty-cornered behind her.

It was a rhetorical question. The roster of speakers on the tour featured a who's who of Chicago venture capitalists and tech-company founders, professions dominated by men.

"We have 19 married couples, I think, tomorrow and 15 today," tour "chairman" and board member Bobbi Zabel said. "Isn't that cool?"

"That's amazing," O'Connor said.

Turning to me, Zabel explained: "We do get a fair number (of men), but this is more than most, probably since the FBI tour."

Zabel stood up and grabbed the microphone at the front of the chartered bus.

"We are passing back two different handouts," she told the 75 or so riders, many of whom were retired, on Bus 1. "You should be getting one sheet that has a glossary on one side and websites on the other. And the other one has a process chart on one side and a wonderful diagram, courtesy of Built in Chicago, that shows how the community in Chicago is supporting the entrepreneurial effort."

And then she turned to the driver. "It's showtime." But he wouldn't go until O'Connor stopped distributing the handouts and sat down.

"I'm going to put her right on the floor," the driver warned.

O'Connor found her seat, and the bus took off for a tour of the Illinois Institute of Technology's new incubator. Gov. Pat Quinn dedicated the facility Wednesday. Billionaire venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker was the second speaker. After thanking David Baker, executive director of the school's technology park, Pritzker addressed his hosts.

"I also wanted to thank the four women who invited me here today, who I have great reverence for and wouldn't dare disappoint. Barbara Pearlman (her husband, Jerry, formerly led Zenith Electronics), Madeline Rosenberg (her husband, Michael, is in the scrap metals business), Judy Block and Jo Minow (wife of Newton Minow, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission). It's an honor to speak with you."

Besides Pritzker, participants heard from Howard Tullman, the CEO of the Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy; Kevin Willer, CEO of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center and a co-founder of Google's Chicago office; Laura Pearl, a managing director at the Ceres Venture Fund; Troy Henikoff, CEO of Excelerate Labs; Sam Guren, former managing director of Hyde Park Angels; and about 36 leaders of hot startups including GiveForward, Analyte Health and Marbles, the Brain Store.

"I came because I knew nothing about technology, and it was just an incredible explosion of information," said Joey Wasilew, a retired psychotherapist, who lives in the Gold Coast.

"So this was totally unfamiliar to you?" I asked.

"Almost 95 percent."

Abby Phelps, 31, was one of the youngest audience members. A Kellogg graduate, she and her husband recently took a year and a half off to travel the world. She said her mom is involved in Know Your Chicago and told her about the tour.

"I'm looking into franchising options, the entreprenuerial world," she said, later adding, "I don't want to go back to the corporate world."

After touring IIT, the group was bused to The Fortnightly, a more than 135-year-old women's social club in a former Gold Coast mansion. They lunched on cobb salad and ice cream made by Bobtail, a local company that got its start by winning the Booth School of Business venture challenge.

Tullman finished the day with a look to the future and the work of Hypr>box, the company that takes all the technologies built at his media arts academy and commercializes them.

"For McDonald's we're trying to get rid of all that plastic crap that they spend a couple billion dollars giving everyone," he said. "The truth is no one over about 6 is interested in that stuff. The kids under 6 want to eat it. But if you're over 6, you're coming in with your phone or USB drive …

"It'll be, 'Here's the five hottest songs, and click here and it'll download a song to your phone.' It's green; it's virtual. But that's not even important. What's astonishingly important is that McDonald's will know the location and have mobile connectivity to every one of their customers."

Gasps erupted from the audience. A man raised his hand and asked about privacy and GPS-tracking.

"If you have say, 47 hours, you can find within Google how to turn off some of these things," Tullman replied. "But you have to understand, if you need 911, you might not want to do that."

It was never spoken. But there were certainly women on that tour who had spent more on a shopping trip than it would take to invest in an early-stage technology company. In some cases, angel investors commit as little as $10,000 to a fledgling enterprise. It's a gamble that rarely pays off, but can pay off big.

And the same can be said for the speakers, who hope spending an hour or two with 300 or so "ageless" women will help them in some way.

A few years ago, the group toured Millennium Park. Zabel recounted that John Bryan, the former Sara Lee CEO and the park's chief civic booster, spoke at a preview for the tour. He joked that one spot was left on the park's colonnade for a million-dollar donor if anyone was interested.

"He got one out of that audience," Zabel said.

Melissa Harris can be reached at or 312-222-4582.

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