ChicagoInno: Let’s Talk About Chicago’s Tech Talent

Jim Dallke and Karis Hustad, ChicagoInno

ChicagoInnoLately, there’s been a lot of talk about Chicago’s tech community and its perceived flaws. Crain’s asked “What’s wrong with Chicago tech startups?” after Cleversafe sold to IBM. Forbes wrote “Howto fix Chicago’s tech industry.” And the Chicago Tribune wrote a Sunday cover story in October titled “Chicago tech talent often grows away,” which examined, among other things, the “brain drain” that occurs when local university students–especially University of Illinois students–leave the state for Silicon Valley.

The Tribune piece in particular ignited criticism from many in the tech community who believe it painted a narrative about Chicago that’s dated and incomplete. Is there something wrong with Chicago tech? Are other cities like Boston, Austin, and Seattle making strides in technology where Chicago is not? Does Chicago’s tech talent really grow away?

The answers require more nuance than “Here’s what’s wrong with Chicago tech” or “Illinois has a brain drain problem.”  

Chicago tech had one of its best years ever in 2014 with $1.6 billion in funding and $7 billion in exits. Chicago is home to four tech companies valued at $1 billion or more–and it’s the only city not on a coast to even have one. Hundreds of entrepreneurs are working to build businesses, create jobs, and grow the local economy, without needing to leave the state to flourish; there are more than 3,200 digital companies in Chicagoland that employ more than 54,000 people, up from 33,000 in 2012.

Not to mention, Chicago was recently ranked the 7th best tech hub in the world in the 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Rankings.

“We’ve basically gone from nothing to number 7 in the world. And that’s pretty good,” said Jeffrey Carter, the co-founder of Hyde Park Angels.

ChicagoTechTalent - ChicagoInnoIt’s not a matter of whether Chicago is “the greatest” tech hub in the country. And it’s not about asking what’s wrong with Chicago tech or admonishing the community because some people have left. When we find ourselves comparing Chicago to Silicon Valley, have we missed the point? Let’s ask instead: Is Chicago “a great” place to build, launch, and scale a business? And to many in Chicago who have done that, and are continuing to do that, the answer is yes.

That’s why over the past few weeks, we’ve interviewed a dozen of the city’s startup founders, investors, educators, and researchers about this perception, why they chose Chicago, and the pros and cons of the Chicago ecosystem. And we’ve gathered talent migration and other university data to create a more robust and nuanced understanding of the tech foundation Chicago has laid thus far.

Does Chicago’s tech talent grow away? Sure. But it also grows. And, if you ask the entrepreneurs building companies in Chicago, the community today is stronger than it’s ever been…