Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Commentary: How to cultivate Chicago's tech superstars

Commentary: How to cultivate Chicago's tech superstars
Howard Tullman
Chicago Tribune
28 October 2015

It's no secret that the exodus of tech talent has long been a concern for Chicago's economy.

But Chicago — at the center of the Midwest's technology resurgence — is a strong competitor in the global economy, and no one here is standing still.

The key, even as we know that some talent will leave for Silicon Valley, is to cultivate the growing stream of superstars who are being educated right here in our backyard so that Chicago can continue to thrive as a primary launching point for emerging businesses.

If the region's tech leaders can build on recent success stories and implement a collaborative plan for the future, Chicago will hold its own alongside established tech centers such as New York and Boston as well as new tech hubs such as Austin, Texas, and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

Chicago has had some notable successes: Cleversafe, Fieldglass, Coyote, GrubHub and Braintree. These companies are moving forward with billion-dollar mergers or huge IPOs. And, most critically, they are staying in Chicago as they continue to grow, attract talented people and reinvest their sale proceeds into new opportunities.

Those new opportunities will pave the way to train and retain the next generation of tech talent.

At 1871, we have nearly a dozen classes teaching coding, entrepreneurship and design. We are training hundreds of people, from all backgrounds, with all levels of technical expertise. It will take time before these training efforts pay dividends, but they will, and they are worth our investment.

Multiple public, private and civic organizations in Chicago are working together to attract companies, retain employees, promote the city's growth and do what is necessary to advance the collective interests of our economy.

One example is ThinkChicago, a program that brings together the city, the University of Illinois, 1871 and established companies such as Motorola and LinkedIn to showcase Chicago to college graduates deciding where to build their professional and personal lives. Another is World Business Chicago, which is bringing foreign dignitaries and businesses to 1871 to see how to launch their products in the United States through Chicago. And yet another example is the Merchandise Mart, which is working to rebrand itself as the center for technology in Chicago and throughout the Midwest.

These collaborative organizations also have investigated other ways to draw talent to Chicago. One is a "study abroad" program in which undergraduates from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will spend a semester in Chicago, combining course instruction with practical work at a tech company.

Another is encouraging Chicago's tech companies to work together and show off more than one company when strong candidates come to town. One of the unique attributes of the Chicago tech community is our unselfish willingness to reach out and help our peers. So let's make it our business to tell new recruits about some of the other cool companies in town so that they can imagine a future in Chicago for themselves and their families.

Many of these ideas would be nonstarters in other cities. Chicago has a collaborative spirit that makes them possible. We are not Silicon Valley, for better or for worse, but we know what we do well and where our strengths are. If we double down on what we've done and what we're doing, our future is very bright.

Howard Tullman is CEO of the Merchandise Mart-based tech hub 1871.

Melissa Wooten | Communications and Operations Associate | 1871 | 336.618.1910 | @1871Chicago

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