Tech Leaders Talk Chicago’s Strengths, Weaknesses at iCONIC
19 May 2015
Three of Chicago’s most influential business leaders took the Chicago Theatre stage Tuesday to speak—mostly glowingly—about Chicago’s emerging tech scene, but also admitted where the city needs to improve when it comes to establishing itself as a leading tech hub.
J.B. Pritzker, 1871 CEO Howard Tullman, and World Business Chicago CEO Jeff Malehorn spoke at Inc. and CNBC’s iCONIC conference to discuss Chicago’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Each hit on topics that might be well known by those who’ve been in the Chicago tech community for a while, but the talk introduced the city’s tech ecosystem to out-of-town attendees.
First, Chicago tech has seen a huge evolution in the last 10 years, Pritzker said, with one of the biggest changes being the city’s growing acceptance of failure. A failed business would be ridiculed on the front page of the newspaper a decade ago, whereas today startups are beginning to embrace failure, and you’re seeing that will serial entrepreneurs in the city, Pritzker said.
Chicago is also starting to slowly shake its conservatism in business, particularly when it comes tp VCs investing in startups, Pritzker added. More venture dollars are coming to Chicago tech companies, and local VCs are willing to take more of a risk.
But Chicago tech companies have retained positive aspects of that conservative business mindset, Pritzker added, in that they have profitability and revenue in mind from the get-go, a characteristic that separates Chicago from many Silicon Valley startups.
Tullman added that a distinct characteristic of entrepreneurs today is that they want to make a difference.
“Entrepreneurs want to not just make a living, but make a life,” he said. “Money alone is not going to make you happy.”
Malehorn said it’s that mindset sets Chicago apart from other tech hubs, as many entrepreneurs take part in civic causes.
“If you adopt a civic cause, you’ll stand and out,” he said. “And if you don’t adopt a civic cause, you'll stand out.”
But Chicago has a ways to go before it reaches the level of a tech hub it wants to be, the panel acknowledged, and one big area of improvement is retaining tech talent. The University of Illinois produces more engineers per year than the next four top engineering schools combined, Malehorn said, and many leave for companies on the coasts.
“We need better connectivity to our university systems,” Malehorn said. “We want engineers to think about Chicago as their first stop when building their career.”
And inevitably, the question of if Chicago can be the next Silicon Valley came up, to which Priztker responded: “We don’t want to be the next Silicon Valley,” and a quiet applause grew from the crowd.
“We aspire to be a great tech hub with great entrepreneurs.”