5 steps Chicago can take to stop its tech talent drain
Entrepreneurs in and out of Chicago agree the city has made strides in developing its tech scene, but they also say more can be done. Here are five steps they suggest to attract and retain talent:
1. Get more money and mentors into the system. Chicago may never be as cash-rich as the San Francisco Bay Area, but most fledgling companies no longer require the big numbers thrown around in Silicon Valley. What would help, many say, would be an uptick in angel investors willing to take a flier on projects in their early stages.
"Chicago has 40 or 50," said Brad Flora, who moved from Chicago to San Francisco and wound up selling his company, Perfect Audience, to Marin Software for a reported $25.5 million. "But it needs like 300."
And if these investors could give guidance in the fields being explored by these startups, all the better.
"Something that was important to me was surrounding myself with people who have done it before," said Remind CEO Brett Kopf, who moved his now widely used education web company from Chicago to the Bay Area upon being accepted at a Palo Alto-based incubator.
2. Adjust mindsets, take risks and don't punish failure. Fair or not, the Midwest has a reputation for being conservative — in its investments as well as its skilled workers' willingness to leave an established job for a promising but risky startup. "Failure" tends not to be part of the roll-up-your-sleeves lingo.
"In San Francisco it took many, many years and many cycles of failure before people were like, 'Oh, this is par for the course,'" said Craig Ulliott, chief technology officer of the Chicago-based Belly. "You can't have amazing successes without taking huge risks."
3. Get the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and the region's other schools to tout and to participate in Chicago's increased tech opportunities. 1871 CEO Howard Tullman is pushing for the U. of I.'s flagship campus to teach a semester's worth of engineering and computer science classes in Chicago while students would spend time working at local companies.
"We need to get the faculties out of their little ivory towers so they can see what is going on here and what has changed since they looked last," Tullman said. "They have no clue."
4. Cooperate and coordinate. Tullman suggests that when companies bring in out-of-town prospects to interview, they should also introduce them to other tech companies in the area. This seems like a counterintuitive strategy — who introduces their own recruits to competitors? — but Tullman argues that if these skilled workers see that they'd have multiple employment options if their first one didn't work out, they would be more likely to relocate.
"No one wants to keep moving their family around the country," Tullman said.
5. Don't try to make Chicago the Silicon Valley of the Midwest. Rather, the city should emphasize its strengths — a diverse economy, reasonable cost of living, cultural riches, deep pool of skilled workers — and the companies that have thrived here.
"I think the less Chicago compares itself to other places, the happier it will be," said Thomas Dyja, author of "The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream." "That need to constantly compare and somehow be the best is so self-defeating. It doesn't build internal, long-lasting community. It builds defensiveness."
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