Building A Broader Community

Yesterday I drove down the University of Illinois in Champaign to interact with, and more importantly listen to classes, startups and give a presentation about what’s going on in Chicago. Chicago is the #7 startup community in the world and growing. The University of Illinois turns out more engineers than Stanford, MIT, and CalTech combined.  We need to bring these two things together to create something huge.

I have been doing this for the past few years thanks to my relationship with entrepreneurship Professor Paul Magelli.  I am going to continue to do it because it’s fun for me and I wish someone had done that for me when I was a student down there.

Ironically, my friend Craig Vodnik was down there speaking to an engineering class and we wound up doing a presentation together later that evening.  I think those that were there got a lot out of .  It’s rare to be able to interact personally with a person like Craig who invested a lot of his own money, didn’t take a salary for two plus years, bootstrapped and turned their startup into a successful company that does business around the world.  Respek.

I like to point out the Midwest startup community has Silicon Valley density, but you have to drive to it.  Champaign is 2.5 hours away from Chicago.  The University of Wisconsin is 2.5 hrs away in Madison.  Purdue is 3 hours away.  Indiana is around 3 hours.  Iowa is about 3.5 hours.  Michigan and Michigan State are about 4.5 hours.  Ohio State is around 5 hours and Minnesota is 6 hours away.  Of course, Northwestern and UChicago are right here and Notre Dame is 1.5 hours away.  Historically, a lot of the things that happened in these towns ran through Chicago.

Chicago is full of graduates from the Big 10.  On a football Saturday, just walk the streets of Lincoln Park and you will see people sporting their Big 10 colors.  Bar after bar adopts a team and it’s full of alums.  Plenty of kids leave Illinois to go to Big 10 schools, and then they come home.  The networks into these schools already exist.  They just have to be nurtured and fired up.  The Chicago startup community should mentally spread it’s borders outside of the city.

Yesterday I met with companies in the iVenture Accelerator and with companies in the Illinois Research Park Enterprise Works Incubator.  Ryan Singh and Noah Isserman are the people running iVenture, Laura Frierichs is running Enterprise Works.  The people there are working on software and ideas that are every bit as cutting edge and game changing as anything in Silicon Valley.

But, many of them are brand new entrepreneurs.  They need mentorship.  They need to understand things like the funding process.  They need to understand the targets they need to get to in order to get different levels of funding.  They need to figure out how to plug into the Chicago community.  People from Chicago need to make it easy and happen for them.

That is the critical role that more experienced people in the Chicago community can play.  It is incumbent on the Chicago community to actively build relationships back into all the schools of the Big 10 if we want to grow our own community.

I want to make this point really clear.  You have to be a person that will bring value and mentorship-and not be a service provider that is just there angling for a meal ticket.