Diversity is Key to Chicago’s Tech and Innovation Future

ChicagoNEXT chairman Mark Tebbe writes about how diversity will continue to make Chicago a stronger and more resilient global tech city

Photo: Yolanda Richards

Starting Jan. 1, it’s natural to reflect on the prior year’s success and challenges. As with any challenge, we revisit the fundamentals that brought us success in the first place.

For a leading global city like Chicago, there are many to consider — legacy corporations in every major industry, a rapidly-growing startup ecosystem and world-renowned universities leading in business, engineering, entrepreneurship and design.

More important than ever, the key to Chicago’s future is what has always been our greatest strength: our rich culture of diversity in people, industries and ideas.

Chicago’s diversity is why top talent is flocking to the Midwest’s largest city; it has fueled our growth as a global hub for technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. That’s why this year we witnessed record student interest in Chicago’s thriving tech sector, demonstrated by the record number of applications for the sixth annual installment of the ThinkChicago program.

Led by the Mayor’s Office and ChicagoNEXT, ThinkChicago brings together students from technology, engineering and entrepreneurship backgrounds to explore Chicago’s technology and cultural scenes. This year, nearly 900 undergraduate and graduate students from across the country applied to the program — a nearly threefold increase over the 2015 program. Selected students came from 26 universities across 13 states, representing over 40 different fields of study.

This diversity of interest reflects Chicago’s history of industry diversity — no one industry takes up more than 14 percent of the city’s total economy. Innovation clusters such as financial technology, real estate and food innovation/urban agriculture represent new growth opportunities for entrepreneurs, startups and investors.

In a recent analysis conducted by PitchBook, Chicago companies offer the highest venture capital returns of any startup hub in the United States. Last Spring’s Chicago Venture Summit connected more than 350 venture capitalists from across the country with the most promising Chicago-based startups and entrepreneurs — expanding access to capital for local entrepreneurs with national venture capitalists. All of this topped a promising urban business climate with competitive cost of living compared to the coasts.

While these strengths continue to drive Chicago’s tech sector, our growth will expand further if we stay true to the fundamentals. An inclusive city like Chicago celebrates and nurtures diversity in all its forms. We take pride in being a city of diverse neighborhoods — 77 to be exact. To build an accessible global tech ecosystem for all, we need innovation to build communities. We need to support entrepreneurship in all parts of Chicago.

Many tech incubators have begun to make strides in programming and mentoring for entrepreneurs of color, women, veterans and other underserved communities. ChicagoNEXT is building from that commitment to more strongly support a wider range of inclusive entrepreneurship efforts.

As we start 2017 with our next big plans for Chicago, we’re going back to the fundamentals: widening access and embracing divergence of thought, background and experience. This diversity will make Chicago a stronger and more resilient global tech city.

This article originally ran in the Chicago Business Journal.

Mark Tebbe is chairman of ChicagoNEXT, a public-private effort out of World Business Chicago that drives growth and opportunity in Chicago’s tech economy. He’s also adjunct professor of entrepreneurship and entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Tebbe’s 25 years of successful entrepreneurial experience includes the founding of two NASDAQ-listed companies, Lante Corp. and Answers Corp., as well as involvement in numerous startup and high-growth companies.