While globally Chicago may still be associated primarily with our financial markets or our epithet the “hog butcher for the world,” it is our tech, and specifically our B2B tech enterprises, that is the engine powering wealth creation. With nearly 400 startups founded in the past five years, and nine of those achieving unicorn status in 2021 alone, Chicago is witnessing a quick rise in entrepreneurship. Yet this rise has not been experienced evenly by all the groups that comprise this diverse city.
We in Chicago tech have two primary problems: a lack of diversity and a need for talent. I believe that if we focus on the former, we can solve the latter.
The lack of diversity in tech nationally is well documented, but in Chicago, the issue is stark; the city’s population is 50 percent nonwhite and 51.4 percent female, yet data from Chicago:Blend revealed that, of 65 Chicago-based startups backed by Chicago-based VCs, less than 25 percent have a nonwhite founder and only 23 percent have a female founder. If we wish to set ourselves apart from other tech hubs and attract newcomers, let us work to make diversity our distinction.
We need to make Chicago a more attractive city to tech talent, and specifically diverse tech talent, not only from the esteemed West Coast but also from our own backyard, including those who may not even be in tech yet. While plenty of work is underway to attract tech talent to Chicago, we should focus equally on providing Chicagoans opportunities to learn, develop in and elevate our tech community.
Here are some of the steps that we should take to make this possible.
If you have executive-level decision-making power, consider removing supplier diversity constraints and update definitions; form go-to-market partnerships with diverse tech founders and companies; and recruit diverse talent to your senior leadership team (and make an effort to promote diverse team members throughout your organization to leadership roles).
Even if you’re not on the executive level, you can help in other ways. For example, connect with local schools, from primary education to higher education, as they are always in need of connectivity into the Chicago tech ecosystem for mentorship and internship opportunities. (World Business Chicago, in collaboration with the city of Chicago and the University of Illinois, does an amazing job at inspiring local undergraduates by direct exposure to tech leaders during its annual ThinkChicago summit.) At any level of a business, you can help by actively making your organization more inclusive.
If you are one of our universities or colleges, fund startup ideas—especially from students coming from underrepresented communities. Do business with entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds, especially if they were formally trained at your institution. Invite diverse founders and techies to come speak to and inspire your school community—and pay those speakers for that work.
If you are one of Chicago’s 94 VCs or angel investors, “hire and wire,” full stop. Update pattern-matching criteria from the past.
If you, too, are a founder, invest forward. Join investment funds like LongJump, which gives underrepresented founders access to capital and resources to start scaling their businesses.
Finally, if you are someone who has thought that the tech industry is out of reach because you haven’t met someone in tech who looked like you or shared a story like yours, please reconsider. We need your voice and your perspective more than ever. Our community’s big problems will likely only be solved by innovative ideas from founders who’ve actually faced those problems.
Let’s work together to make our Second City second to none. Let’s make Chicago the best place for anyone in our community to start a business.
Garry Cooper is founder and CEO of Rheaply, a software-as-a-service company that specializes in enterprise asset management technology for the circular economy.