Chicago has always been known as my kind of town, and that kind of inclusive thinking is precisely why it has taken on a new persona in recent years. A trip down the Chicago river highlights the city’s rich history. Colorful, familiar names like Wrigley, Sears, and Oprah remind us of the city’s entrepreneurial roots. But today’s Chicago is more than the stereotypical Middle America classic known for Sinatra and baseball. It’s now a technology powerhouse.
Wrigley’s roots grew into the Chicago of today.
The most famous food to ever come out of Chicago isn’t actually a food at all. Wrigley chewing gum is still a Chicago favorite, despite the growing competition. But it also paved the way for future food and beverage businesses to make Chicago their home.
Among them is Farmer’s Fridge, a company offering refrigerated vending machines full of healthy, chef-curated meals and snacks all over Chicago, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis. Farmer’s Fridge’s early success led to an ambitious expansion plan, fueled by firms betting that healthy food plus convenience is a consumer favorite.
Founder and CEO Luke Saunders believes Chicago was a perfect test market for the model: “Chicago has been ideal for us. The city is both innovative and food forward, yet it’s also right in the heart of the country. The success we’ve seen here can be replicated in every market across America.”
And then there’s Winestyr, whose success as a small-batch wine club proves the city is hungry for more than just a good business plan.
“Chicago isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to wine production, but the reception we’ve had here has been amazing,” says founder Bob Wilson. There’s always someone willing to offer guidance and mentorship. It’s a very positive place.”
Oprah’s entertainment legacy lives on.
Oprah’s firm grip on the entertainment industry has inspired all kinds of new businesses in the city she brought to industry prominence. Entrepreneurs of all stripes are now successfully following in her footsteps.
One is Jammber, the first and only self-serve, end-to-end rights and royalty administration platform for the music industry in North America. The company is on a mission to get creatives paid faster and get proper credit for their work. Founded by Marcus Cobb, Jammber has designed technology that empowers creatives to capture metadata in every step of the creative process. Jammber is proud to call Chicago home.
“I’ve been a part of Chicago’s tech community for 15 years. The caliber of talent and the available resources I know are here are why we chose to build our product teams here,” says Cobb.
Another hot company is Brideside, an online marketplace with showrooms in Chicago and a few select U.S. cities, for bridal gowns and bridesmaid dresses. Co-Founders Sonali Lamba and Nicole Staple met at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and their online marketplace has shaken up the finicky bridal market.
“It’s incredible to be part of Chicago’s growing technology scene,” says Lamba. “I’m proud to be a female founder here in Chicago, and I’ve found the entrepreneurial community to be both savvy and supportive.”
The seeds of Sears: A legacy of innovation.
Since consumer pioneer Sears began its mail-order catalog business in Chicago in 1887, the city has been a boon for entrepreneurial thinkers. Scott Kitun of Chicago venture firm Technori has become an outspoken ambassador for the city:
“The innovation we’ve seen in Chicago is at least on par with the other major tech hubs in the country, if not greater. We’ve got two of the best universities in the world, which feeds a steady stream of new ideas, plus more Fortune 500 companies than most cities, which means there’s a lot of funding power. That’s a fairly ideal set-up for new and small businesses looking to grow.”
Take start-up Catalytic as an example. “Catalytic offers an easy to use AI-powered automation software that helps you get around “corporate inertia” to greatly increase office productivity without a heavy IT burden,” says CEO and Co-Founder Sean Chou. “Chicago is fast-paced, yet we find businesses can’t move fast enough. With Catalytic, businesses can create their own process-driven solutions, which leads to unprecedented customer experiences and competitive edge.”
And then there’s data pioneer Narrative Science, which helps companies capitalize on two redhot business trends: data and storytelling. “Chicago has never been afraid to take on tough problems. The challenge of our day is helping everyone make sense of their data. For nearly a decade, we’ve been creating technology that turns data into stories, and that really resonates with people,” says Keelin McDonell, GM of Business Intelligence & Integrations at Narrative Science.
Larger technology companies tracking Chicago’s changing landscape have moved in, opening secondary offices across the city. These include Google, Uber, and G2. Other companies are strengthening their presence, including tech giant Salesforce.
“Chicago has been a great city for us,” says Marie Rosecrans, SVP of small business marketing at Salesforce. “Obviously, it has a ton of respected enterprises, but it’s really the entrepreneurial spirit that we love. The startups and small businesses here are so active and energized — it’s an incredibly inspiring time to be here.”
Salesforce is even supporting the Chicago entrepreneurial vision by bringing its popular Growth Camp series back to Chicago for a reboot on September 26 at 1871. The free half-day event offers excellent hands-on workshops and expert panels. But, the most valuable takeaway is networking. The event is heavy on Chicago natives with proven track records of business growth.
Diverse networks and neighborhoods.
Chicago is an enviable city in just about every regard, but it’s the diversity that really sets it apart. Just ask Betsy Ziegler, CEO of 1871, a hub for Chicago’s thriving technology and entrepreneurial ecosystem. As the global #1 university-affiliated incubator and home to roughly 400 early-stage, high-growth digital startups, 1871 invests in the diverse founders and operators so prevalent throughout the city.
“Chicago is unique in that regard,” says Ziegler. “We celebrate and reward diversity here, and that mindset has really empowered the startup community. We’re so happy to be a part of the city’s burgeoning community of new businesses.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot continues to reinforce her commitment to Chicago’s neighborhoods and small business community. She believes she can create an entrepreneurial feel while also attracting high-tech and enterprise B2C companies.
The precedent is there. According to recent data from the Chicagoland Chamber, “90% of all companies exporting goods from Illinois are small businesses. These companies generate $15 billion per year in exports.”
Diversity and inclusion, too, are on the rise, thanks to the efforts of several companies. The Illinois Hispanic Chamber has pushed Chicago to be more proactive in diversity hiring, educating local leaders on the importance of growing an inclusive mindset in both new and established businesses. Small businesses have also gotten a welcome push from the yearly Inner City Capital Connections, which aims to boost funders from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds.
There’s still something for everyone in Chicago.
Experts are generally in agreement that the outlook for Chicago’s business and start-up market isn’t windy at all.
Lindsay Knight, a director at Chicago Ventures, even says, “Chicago’s a diverse, but extremely collaborative tech community. We benefit from multiple university systems, 30+ Fortune 500s, seasoned execs, and mentors who are willing to give back, and a strong venture capital community. Chicago’s startup ecosystem puts in the work to build businesses with real revenue and real value solving real problems — in industries like logistics, finance, insurance, transportation, and others.”
Though Chicago may be growing and changing, it somehow manages to keep that storied my kind of town feel. If you’re ready to keep it that way, start by joining that free Growth Camp event on September 26th.
Photo Credit: Alex Powell from Pexels