On January 7th of this year, Tom Alexander – former Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rahm Emanuel – was named Chief Operating Officer for “1871,” Chicago’s hub for technology start-ups. Mr. Alexander, who reports to CEO Howard Tullman, brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the new position. Alexander’s role includes the facility operations, business development with the general tech community and external relations with government and media partners.
Until joining 1871, Mr. Alexander had spent his career in public service. His experiences include: senior communications director at the University of Chicago, a communications project director in the Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s Office and as a senior disaster analyst at the U.S. Small Business Administration. As Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Alexander oversaw day-to-day communications, and played a leading role on the Mayor’s economic council, which is designed to attract and retain companies in Chicago. Mr. Alexander received a political science degree from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s Degree in public policy at Northwestern.
Tom Alexander talked to the IVCA regarding his new COO role, and the implementation of a new direction for 1871.
IVCA: You came over to 1871 from the Mayor's Office, where you served as Deputy Communications Director, and you've also worked for Governor Quinn. What culturally for you has been different in the transition from government operations to 1871, and how have you injected your vast communications experience into your new role?
Tom Alexander: In terms of communications, we’re always focused on creating opportunities for our members: using the reach and breadth of 1871 to allow our members to share their stories. We’ve been successful in setting up regular features that allow us to show off 1871 companies, and at 1871 we’re going to continue pushing for more and more opportunities to spread the word about our companies. I hope that over time we not only create opportunities for our member companies but also help them understand the ways in which they can successfully use communication tools and access to achieve their business objectives.
Culturally, I am enthusiastic about the energy of the startups, I am enthusiastic about their business ideas, and I’m enthusiastic about the opportunity that 1871 has to help each and every one of them build their ideas out into sustainable, functioning businesses. I think 1871 has a real opportunity to be proactive and to insert itself into the success of a lot of different companies, and I think that we can build a culture where everyone feels that they have a part of it.
So we’re really looking to create a culture of success and energy and excitement and to continue the great things that have been done so far.
IVCA: Howard Tullman, CEO of 1871, recently announced an '1871 2.0' initiative, designed to form more partnerships with established brands and other tech incubators – nationally and internationally. How will these proposals strengthen and expand the concept of 1871?
Alexander: Howard identified from ‘moment one’ that, while imitation is indeed flattering, it can also lead to a lot of confusion and a dilution of effort and support. The message we tell our members every day applies just as much to 1871 itself. We need to keep growing, improving and iterating because standing still in this expanding economy is a formula for eventual failure. We are the leader in this market, but the market is constantly changing and evolving. We don’t simply want to be the biggest; we always want to be the best. We see specific verticals – educational technology, financial technology, women in technology, among others – as the key places in which innovation and growth will occur in the coming years. We want to be front and center in supporting the new businesses that will drive that growth.
We also want to work with other organizations and potential partners to provide more opportunity for our member companies. Whether it's partnering with organizations like Accenture or Microsoft or Georgia Tech – on startup engineering – or creating reciprocity deals around the globe through the Google for Entrepreneurs network, we are looking to uncover every potential partnership that can benefit the companies in the space.
IVCA: In your career as a communications expert, your job was the distilling of information. What elements of 1871 are not being properly communicated to the business community or the City of Chicago in general, and what initiatives are you spearheading to change those dynamics?
Alexander: I don’t think it’s a matter of things not being properly communicated to the business community or the city, but I do think that we have opportunities to better tell the story, as one always does with a business. Critical areas that are important for us to communicate are that every business at 1871 has a larger purpose other than simply making money.
In addition, 1871 is by its definition about improving the entire city – not just improving the member companies. When you look at the individual businesses, one thing that we’re doing is asking every business to consider its larger impact from the moment it applies to 1871. This is an idea that we borrowed from Impact Engine, which has been very successful in terms of helping businesses achieve success while also adding a greater purpose. This greater purpose is a key area that we hope to communicate to anyone and everyone in the city of Chicago. There is a place at 1871 for all of us.
IVCA: Governor Quinn and Mayor Emanuel have both been staunch supporters of 1871, and are pushing the state and city to embrace technology as part of its economy. With the recent announcement of the UI LABS Digital Manufacturing Institute on Goose Island, and the emphasis on creating a new vision for 1871, what can you report from your position on the state of tech industries in the City of Chicago in 2014 and beyond?
Alexander: 1871 is an amazing experiment where the city, state, private sector, schools, non-profit organizations and many more have come together to create an environment of innovation, excitement and progress that is reflective of what we see outside the walls of 1871. The tech economy in Chicago is thriving. We are seeing growth across the board, in every sector of the technology economy. We are seeing massive success stories, like Braintree and Grubhub. Also large tech corporations like Motorola Mobility are moving back into the city and companies from around the nation are coming here. And we are seeing companies across Chicago and Illinois raising money, creating jobs, acquiring customers and looking to the future. We are very encouraged.
IVCA: The Venture Capital and Private Equity community has been available to 1871 as mentors and sponsors since inception. Besides those vital contributions, what role can the VC and PE community play in the development of '1871 2.0'?
Alexander: First, it's critical not to overlook those two areas. Funding and mentorship are both critical for startups and the VC and private equity community have provided both of those elements extensively.
In terms of the further development of 1871, we see a couple of areas where the Venture Capital community can be involved. The first area is the identification of – and commitment to – specific verticals. At 1871, we are trying to stay on the cutting edge of what is next, rather than attempting to define what is next. We look forward to working with VC and Private Equity communities to invest in these companies. The VC and PE communities are great attractors of excitement, interest and talent – and we hope to share in that. Recently William Blair hosted Ben Horowitz at 1871, which was a great opportunity for our organization, our members and the whole community. We hope to do more of that.
Finally, we hope that the VC and PE community will continue to support our mission by working with our startups, attending our events and supporting our annual dinner, and generally helping to ensure that 1871 maintains its role as the hub for technology in Chicago.
For more information regarding about “1871 2.0” and events associated with it, click here.