I have said it before and I’ll say it again, Chicago as a startup city is booming. Launching a startup in Chicago now is a good thing; the barriers to entry are low and there is a thriving community that is starting to come together in exciting ways.
Chicago’s tech community is also fragile. This isn’t some fatalistic, hand wringing opinion. Without the right leadership from the state and the city, our boom could turn to a bust fast. Consider the ‘Amazon Tax’ that passed both houses in Springfield; with one signature of his pen Governor Quinn can enact a law that will effectively shut down all startups in Illinois that make their revenue off affiliate sales.
Our leaders need to be educated on how the 21st century works and is playing out- just as sure as we don’t want to have broadband defined as DSL (Springfield almost did that), we need a level playing field so our entrepreneurs have a chance to get a foothold and compete with the rest of the country and the world.
Chicago needs a Mayor that is invested in our community’s success. Chicago is no longer ‘Hog Butcher of the World’ and our skies are not black with soot from our factories. We are firmly in the 21st century and need a mayor that understand this and encourages it. The Mayor that understands that Chicago “makes” plenty of things but does not make them in factories will lead us forward; the one focused on factories and the 20th century will hold us back. We can turn the factories on or we can turn them into incubators and startup centers. The Industrial Revolution is dead and Chicago can either help lead the Information Age or be left in the past.
In attempting to gauge the candidates’ opinions on the Chicago Tech Community I reached out to the three leading candidates for an interview. I was not able to get one and therefore had to send questions via email to each candidate. The questions I sent are listed below and each candidate received the exact same questions.
The only two campaigns to reply to the questions were Rahm Emanuel and Gery Chico. Carol Moseley Braun’s campaign never replied to any of my attempts to reach out to her- they never even acknowledged my attempts to reach them.
Rahm Emanuel’s campaign responded directly to the questions I asked and answered them. I am printing them below exactly as they were sent to me.
Gery Chico’s campaign sent me a list of talking points and did not answer the questions I posed above but instead sent the “Gery Chico Jobs Plan.” As the Chico campaign did not answer the questions I asked, I will print the parts of the plan sent to me that come closest to answering the questions.
The questions I asked were left open ended for a reason- I wanted to see if the candidates actually had a grasp of what the startup community was like in Chicago or if they paid lip service to it.
Here are the questions the candidates all received:
1. What do you see the role of the Mayor being in Chicago’s startup tech community?
2. How important will it be for the administration to support the growth of Chicago’s tech community?
Here then, in their words, are the responses I received to the questions posed above followed by an endorsement:
As mentioned above, Gery Chico did not directly answer the questions that were posed. Instead, his Deputy Press Secretary sent over a list of talking points. As this article is not a campaign commercial and in the interests of being fair to all three candidates, I am reprinting the points closest to the questions I asked and not reprinting his entire plan.
The list covered Green tech, Information Tech, Health Services and Trading and Risk Management.
From the campaign:
Gery Chico will:
– Create a Tech Venture Fund to provide seed money to IT start-ups. This fund will supply needed capital for start-up firms, and also help leverage additional private investment to expand the capital available for innovative start-ups in the city.
– Invest in and enhance information technology infrastructure.
– Strengthen the tie between the Chicago City Colleges workforce development programs and IT employers.
– Develop collaborative programs with universities, medical centers, the business community and the City Council to make Chicago a global leader in research, commercialization, production, and deployment of clean technologies.
– Leverage our great universities and medical centers to continue the development of the health services industry in Chicago in ways that bring unprecedented growth and notoriety to our city.
Chico’s campaign also said they want to, “develop a financial technology initiative to expand Chicago’s role as the ‘fintech’ (financial tech) center of the world.”
Rahm Emmanuel’s campaign replied directly to the questions asked- this is direct from his campaign (they quoted my questions in their response):
What do you see the role of the Mayor being in Chicago’s startup tech community?
How important will it be for the administration to support the growth of Chicago’s tech community?
Does Mr. Emanuel have a plan increase the profile of Chicago as a destination for new companies to be launched?
If so, what are some of the details?
Where should Chicago’s tech community be in 5 years vs. now?
The private sector creates jobs, but the government creates the conditions for the private sector to flourish — that’s where the partnership is and I’m committed to doing my part. We can do a better job at offering a world-class public transportation system, at lowering taxes, at making business licensing more simple and predictable.
We also should do a better job of bringing together the City’s incredible institutional assets to plan more effectively. For example, I want to bring together the University of Chicago, IIT, Northwestern, Argonne, Fermi, UIC, Baxter, Motorola, Abbott and think about how we can coordinate research and development to create high tech, biotech and green tech research campuses. As a city, we’ll make sure the zoning and building
permits are expedited for these collaborative projects and we’ll plan out five or ten years so that all stakeholders have confidence in the long-term viability. This will make us a major job creator and a major company creator for the city of Chicago.
In Mr. Emanuel’s opinion, what 3 companies best exemplify Chicago’s tech community?
I think tech companies like Groupon, BrightTag, Threadless and Google represent the three facets of Chicago’s tech community. Companies like Groupon grew up here and are now experiencing explosive growth — we must be sure to offer the talent pool economic environment and physical infrastructure to keep them here. BrightTag and Threadless are upstarts that are attracting attention from both coasts — we have to be sure to maintain and nurture a community of innovators so that companies like this
remain in Chicago and continue to create new businesses here. And Google is a global leader that decided to invest heavily in Chicago — we must continue to attract these businesses and market ourselves as the technology hub of the Midwest.
The biggest takeaways?
The Braun Campaign:
It is clear Carol Moseley Braun has no plan for the tech community in Chicago and with her history of corruption she is an unacceptable leader for our city.
From the Chico campaign:
The Gery Chico administration will, “create a Tech Venture Fund to provide seed money to IT startups.”
This is kind of an incredulous statement and instantly calls to mind follow up questions: How big would this fund be? Would it be a strictly seed fund or VC fund? Both? How does the candidate define “seed” and “venture” capital? The words used said, ‘Tech Venture Fund to provide seed money’ and in itself sounds like either a contradiction or a misunderstanding of the words “seed funding” and “venture funding”.
Without actually speaking to the candidate it is impossible to know the details but at first glance it strikes me as highly doubtful the city of Chicago is going to start actively investing in startup companies. Who would manage such a fund? A mid-level bureaucrat with zero experience in technology? Where would the money come from? What would define “tech” as companies sought access to the money?
This statement, which looked like a talking point in an email full of talking points, seemed to say much more than it didn’t. When things sound to good to be true they usually are and I cannot imagine a Mayor’s office with an investment fund. As exciting and incredible as that sounds, in practice it’s likely D.O.A.
“Strengthen the tie between the Chicago City Colleges workforce development programs and IT employers”
This is a great point and sorely needed- too many of our computer engineering graduates slip away to NYC and Silicon Valley- while Gery Chico did not specifically mention engineers, any connection between our schools and tech companies would be welcome.
The other statements were pretty broad and did not really answer the questions asked. Nothing was overtly anti-startup or anti-tech and sounded as though a Mayor Chico would indeed support the community in general but was short on specifics. Other than the “Tech Venture Fund” it is unclear what Gery Chico’s answers are to the other questions.
From the Emanuel Campaign:
After the Chicago Innovation awards, Rahm Emanuel sat down and had a discussion with the heads of several of the companies that received awards to see what they wanted from a Mayor and it shows in his answers- when asked which three companies best exemplify Chicago’s tech community, we got the answers of, BrightTag, Threadless and Google.
These answers are telling- BrightTag is certainly a bright spot in Chicago with serious talent behind it. Choosing Google might seem like a safe answer until you read about choosing Threadless as well.
Threadless is a bona fide Chicago success story for sure and it’s not too hard to find their name in the press when searching for Chicago success stories. (Threadless started with $500 and a website) Still, it is easy to wonder if the other candidates have done the same reaching out to the community- does Gery Chico know how big Google’s presence is in Chicago or what BrightTag does? What about the success of Threadless’ crowdsourced business model?
By being able to list the companies it shows the Emanuel campaign knows what is happening in Chicago- and even more than the answer on the “three companies” question is this gem:
“…I want to bring together the University of Chicago, IIT, Northwestern, Argonne, Fermi, UIC, Baxter, Motorola, Abbott and think about how we can coordinate research and development to create high tech, biotech and green tech research campuses.”
This comment says volumes. Chicago has an incredible ecosystem of institutions, schools and businesses and by naming particular ones and saying he wants to, “coordinate research and development to create high tech, biotech and green tech research campuses,” Mayor Emanuel understands a problem entrepreneurs have” lack of access to other entrepreneurs and institutions that can help.
This is definitely forward thinking. There is nothing entrepreneurs love more than being around other entrepreneurs. Look at the ITA and SYNC center here in Chicago- creating a campus for startups to congregate in would have an exponential effect on startups here in the city. Where entrepreneurs and code monkeys gather, innovation takes place. Getting the leading schools, institutions and personalities from the community to join together in realizing such a campus is a great idea.
When I was in the U.S. Army there was a saying, “When in charge, be in charge.” I have spoken with entrepreneurs and VC’s here in Chicago discussing what the city’s entrepreneurial startup community needs and what I have heard over and over is that we need a Mayor that understands our needs and talks about us. When the Mayor of Chicago talks, national media pays attention. If the Mayor of Chicago says, “Chicago is a great place to launch a startup and here’s why,” people will come to Chicago to start businesses. I believe this and so do the entrepreneurs and leaders in the community I have spoken with.
I do believe that Gery Chico has ideas for the city. His plan for the city does have an entire section on technology investment (and tech infrastructure) but they are general ideas and not specific. I do not believe (based on the access I was given) that his campaign has made the startup community a priority- other than the mention of what sounds like a too good to be true ‘Tech Venture Fund’, generic talking points do not a coherent plan make.
In Rahm Emanuel’s case, as opposed to making general statements about investing in the tech community he listed the companies that serve as examples and said outright he wants to create “campuses” to foster startup growth.
If an entrepreneur could look at Chicago and say, “I’m going to launch my startup in (x) neighborhood in the city because that’s where the tech campus is” that neighborhood would go through a boom and carry the rest of the city with it as Chicago’s Tech Renaissance continues.
For these reasons, Flyover Geeks is endorsing Rahm Emanuel for Mayor of Chicago. It is clear he understands the tech community and knows the benefits a strong startup community would bring to the city.