At World Business Chicago, it’s all hands on deck in support of Chicago’s growing entrepreneurial community and that’s why we work closely with the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (CEC). In fact, we’re currently expanding our partnership and collaboration on research, marketing, and access to professional advisory services and qualified mentors. Through this strengthened relationship, our objective is to provide CEC’s clients with extended access to Chicago’s broader business leadership, enabling high-growth innovators to gain industry traction as they bring new products and services to market.
We recently had an opportunity to interview Kevin Willer, the newly appointed CEO of the CEC, and gain his insights into Chicago’s rich and growing entrepreneurial ecosystem:
If it’s your job to help incubate tech-centric businesses, it helps to have Google on your resume right? Tell us about your history within the Chicago tech landscape:
I grew up in the Chicago ‘burbs and worked for U.S. Robotics in Skokie, one of those old-school tech companies, and in 2000 I co-founded the Chicago Google office. That was back when there were less than 200 employees in the whole company (Google currently employs 26,000 people worldwide and 450 of them are based in Chicago). Most recently I headed up Google’s civic development efforts here so I was the ‘outside face’ of Chicago’s Google office.
What does the CEC do exactly?
We work with high potential entrepreneurs to help build and grow their companies. The folks we meet with have some traction already--some revenue or a product—but still need help getting to the next level, so they can meet with investors and raise real capital. We connect entrepreneurs with advisors and mentors in their industry, help them refine their business models and goals, and then we introduce them to venture capitalists and angel investors.
Do you have a favorite success story?
I have a few, actually. There’s Savo Group, Sitter City, Grub Hub and Zorch. We helped all of them get up and running, and now these companies are that much more likely to do the same for a start-up that just needs a little guidance on their way to becoming the next success story.
Talk to me about the entrepreneurial community in Chicago. How does our city rank in comparison to others?
This is a really exciting time for the City—a lot of Chicago organizations are collaborating to support a self-sustaining entrepreneurial eco-system in Chicago, so it’s an ideal time to start a company here. We’ve got the talented human capital, more of whom are choosing to stay here after graduating from say an IIT or University of Chicago. We’ve got venture capital firms here and we also have more angel investors than ever before. Plus, we have the social capital–-an enthusiastic infrastructure of people who know how important all of the above is. In short, everything an entrepreneur needs to get a business up and running is available right here in Chicago.
Overall, there is much more activity and interest now than just a few years ago. The recession was actually helpful to that energy level. Over the past few years, Chicagoans who lost their jobs and recent college graduates assessed the recessionary job landscape and basically said, “I want to have some control over my career path,” so many of them decided to start their businesses or join a startup.
What does Chicago still need to keep its ‘entrepreneurial edge’?
Chicago is probably the hottest city right now in terms of start-up activity, but I’d say we still need three things:
- More tech talent, but that’s true all over the country.
- Connecting corporate Chicago with start-up Chicago. Think what it would mean for a company like Boeing to meet with an entrepreneur who has a new piece of software that could help Boeing be an even better company. I’m not talking charity—I’m saying support your young companies.
- Chicago needs a place for entrepreneurs to do their thing. Signing a five-year lease just isn’t the right model for a new start-up. They need flexibility and, ideally, a space where they can be near other young entrepreneurs to feed off of each other’s energy.
If you could ask one thing from Chicago’s overall business community, what would it be?
I’d encourage them to “take a meeting.” Just meet with that entrepreneur even if you’re not sure how you can help or what you might advise. These connections are invaluable to start-ups.
Do you have ways of making ‘Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center’ pop up in every Google search?
Well no, but what I’d like to see is ‘Chicago’ pop up first in any search about the best place to start a business. I don’t have any special powers and anyway I don’t need to because that’s already the case.