I want to start by thanking JB for his kind words and, more importantly, for his prescient vision six years ago without which 1871 would simply not exist. I asked JB to present my award, not only because of our friendship and his dedication to 1871, but also because he and I have been engaged together in this grand adventure of building a viable community of Chicago entrepreneurs and investors for almost 20 years (in good times and bad) since I first invested with him in the William Blair New World Ventures fund. Right before the beginning of what he calls the nuclear winter. But we made it through those tough times and he never lost his passion or gave up on the dream.
JB’s initial support and his enthusiastic and continuing commitment to 1871, along with the help of countless others being recognized here tonight like our Chairman, Jim O’Connor, have brought us to this time and to this special occasion – the 10th annual Momentum Awards Dinner – where we recognize our city’s best and brightest businesses. I’m pleased that Governor Pat Quinn is also with us tonight and – as we ex-lawyers love to say – “but for” his foresight and financial backing, 1871 would never have been built and we wouldn’t be here celebrating its extraordinary success. Rahm may take a lot of the credit, but Pat gave us the cash.
And speaking of celebrating, I couldn’t be prouder of our awardees and nominees tonight; I’m honored to be in their company; and I think that this may be the strongest and most impressive group of companies that we have ever assembled. Choosing between these extraordinary enterprises – led by amazing and super-talented people - was even harder than telling Rahm that his video could only be 2 minutes long. As you know, I believe in looking for and betting on the best in people and tonight you’ll see the very best of the best.
Events as large and challenging as this don’t come together quickly or easily or by themselves and I am grateful for the hard work of our team (and also, as always, to Tuey and his team) for putting together an event and program that – as you will see – is truly remarkable and representative of everything that 1871 stands for.
I want to thank the CEC Board of Directors for honoring me with this Lifetime Achievement award recognizing almost 50 years of Chicago-based entrepreneurship although I was slightly suspicious that this was just a very polite way of their saying “enough already – go do something else – stop driving us crazy”. Because, in all honesty, the last 4 years during which I have served as the CEO of the CEC and of 1871 have been a wild and crazy ride and one which I will never forget.
And, of course, you don’t do anything important these days by yourself and I’ve been blessed with a great management team starting with Tom Alexander and every other dedicated and hard-working member of our little group especially Lakshmi and Claudia who make everything happen on time. We’ve also had terrific partners like Phyllis Lockett, Omar Duque and Todd Connor who have each helped us broaden and strengthen the extensive educational offerings at 1871. We made the room, but they helped make the difference.
Together, we have all put Chicago on the world stage and welcomed visitors from around the globe; we have dramatically expanded the tech economy in our own city while creating more than 10,000 new jobs; we have welcomed thousands of new entrepreneurs of all ages to the expanding ecosystem, and we have worked long and hard on our diversity and inclusion efforts to make 1871 look and feel like our entire city.
To have Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple Computer (the most valuable company in the world), brag as you heard in Rahm’s video just 2 weeks ago about Apple’s partnership with 1871 and describe 1871 as the “mother of all incubators” speaks volumes about our accomplishments and reminds us as well of the achievements of our WiSTEM program which has helped make Chicago the best place in the United States for female entrepreneurs to start their businesses.
I also want to thank my wife and my daughters. I’ve said this before, but it should really be tattooed somewhere on every entrepreneur’s forehead. It’s not simply the entrepreneur who pays the price, makes the sacrifices, and supports these painful journeys. Having the love, confidence and unwavering belief of your loved ones in what you’re trying to do (when the whole rest of the world thinks you’re crazy) is the real secret super power of every entrepreneur. There’s always more work, but you’ve only got one family and ultimately, they are the best reflection of what you’ve actually accomplished. I can’t thank mine enough or love them more.
And while 1871 has already tripled in size and continues to grow with help from folks like our good friends at BOSCH, and thanks in large part to the efforts of our partners at Gensler, Steelcase and Skender Construction who were ably directed by Barbara Pollack, I’m also very proud of the other important ways that we’re expanding our reach and impact beyond our four walls in a variety of initiatives.
Our Eagle Entrepreneurs class for 9th graders at the Dyett High School for the Arts (now in its second year) is already showing concrete results in improved engagement and academics as well.
Working with our latest grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation and WBC, we have begun implementing our 1871LIVE program to digitally deliver some of our extraordinary content and programming to entrepreneurial organizations and entities located in other underserved parts of the city.
And, partnering with 1871 startup, EX3 Labs, we are deploying immersive labs and AR and VR technologies to various Chicago public schools to provide students with early exposure to these critical new technologies. These are funded in part by our corporate partners and sponsors through innovative programs developed by Lakshmi who heads our business development and strategic partnering team.
As I think about leaving the day-to-day operations of 1871, and as I consider where we stand today and what I hope the future will look like for 1871 and our city, I’m extremely proud of what we built, but I’m also a little wary. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but too much of a good thing is hard for even the most robust economy to digest.
I believe in the power of critical mass and that’s certainly what 1871 has uniquely achieved. But, going forward, we have to be careful that we don’t dilute the value of what we’ve accomplished by trying to serve too many masters. Having a We-Work in every ward is just a knee-jerk reaction to the flavor of the week. 1871 was built to last. You can try to be the best that you can be, but you can’t be all things to all people.
I’ve done many memorable things in my career, and I’m proud to say that I still have more plans and dreams than memories or regrets, but if I had to single out the most important accomplishment of my time at 1871 and the thing that I am the proudest of – it would be that I’ve been the loudest, fiercest and most aggressive advocate and champion for this precious place that I could possibly be. The personality that makes you a great entrepreneur and leader doesn’t come with a regulator or a shut-off valve. Believe it or not, it was never about ego – it was actually about feeling the pressure of an immense responsibility.
You see, when you sign up to help the next several generations of young and old entrepreneurs turn their hopes and dreams into real businesses; when you hold a part of their futures and their fates in your hands; and when your own work ethic and every-day actions speak just as loudly as any of your words, you don’t get to phone it in, you don’t get a break or a day off, you don’t get to do anything less than the very best that you can do each and every day…..because that’s what those who came before us did for us and that’s the least we owe to the ones coming up. You learn early on that the speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack.
We live in the greatest city, in the greatest country in the world, and the future is scary, uncertain and exciting – all at the same time. But together, we can continue to invent it, to aggressively build and change it, and to make it better – because that’s what entrepreneurs do. They make all the difference in the world.
Thank you very much.