One of the most underestimated entrepreneurship hubs in the United States is, without question, Chicago.
It gets some love here and there, and has definitely risen in the ranks (both nationally and globally) over the past few years, but in general it is still very much a "best kept secret." There is a whole lot more going on here than most people outside the city realize. It's not until you step within the entrepreneurship scene here that you realize the Midwest has a lot to offer.
A recent Inc article penned by my fellow columnist, Yazin Akkawi, framed it perfectly: "Whereas Silicon Valley attracts the most brilliant technologists, and New York City attracts those who value big living and opulence, Chicago attracts the get-shit-done, no-nonsense leaders. It's a big city with a small town feel, and its culture is based in values of hard work, discipline, and dedication. Chicagoans are pragmatic and have a sensible idea of what can be achieved. But most importantly, they are grounded in their motivations for disruption. And that's exactly what positions Chicago to be the next global hub for innovation."
But as much as Chicago may appear to be "all about the money," in the sense that it is more willing to throw money at sales-driven ventures with promising (and more reliable) returns on investments, Chicago has a sweet spot for social responsibility. Maybe it's the fact that each year Chicagoans all have to endure eight cold months together before the reward of summer.
Regardless, the Midwest as a whole seems to share this "how can I help?" vibe, and you can feel it when you visit the city--even as a tourist. Chicago does not come with the same grit and impatience associated with New York City, nor does it house as many of the eccentric personalities commonly found in Los Angeles. Literally and metaphorically, it sits right between those two extremes.
When it comes to social entrepreneurship, and building companies with the intention of a greater good, there are a handful of investors in Chicago that make capital available for social enterprises: Pritzker Group, Impact Engine, etc.
Jeff Rosset, co-founder and CEO of the Chicago Leadership Alliance (CLA), explained: "Chicago is one of the very top U.S. cities for nonprofits. There is a strong nonprofit culture already in place, and so many people here are open to ideas that promote social good and positive change. Additionally, Chicago has a thriving tech community--one of the biggest and most established in the country. And as the community continues to grow, more and more resources will be dedicated to companies focused on social responsibility."
The Chicago Leadership Alliance is one of the forces looking to pave the way in this space, along with other initiatives like TechweekGives--which is powered by local startups uBack and Shopping.Gives.
Techweek (for those that don't know) is one of the biggest and most established conferences in Chicago related to tech entrepreneurship. Its partner, Shopping.Gives, is a local startup disrupting the old industry of fundraising for nonprofits. Instead of asking people to donate, organizations can create a campaign page with Shopping.Gives and have their fans, followers, and even friends shop over 750 of the top brands online, with a portion of the proceeds of what they buy going back to the campaign (up to 40%).
In a nutshell: Instead of buying that new pair of Nike shoes online, and then on a separate day donating some money to a fundraising campaign that matters to you, buy that pair of shoes through Shopping.Gives and a portion of the sale will be donated on your behalf.
Pretty cool concept.
I asked the founder, Ronny Sage, what inspired the creation of Shopping.Gives, and he said, "Here in Chicago, we believe a lot in helping people. But the nonprofit sector is outdated, and unfortunately a lot of great causes struggle to raise money--even though when you tell people about them, they love the idea and want to be involved. We created Shopping.Gives as a way to make more people's everyday habits, like online shopping, meaningful. This way, more money is raised for causes that matter, fundraising efforts online can be streamlined, and big brands that want to be more socially responsible can not only be involved, but actually reach more customers. It's a win, win, win."
Kaitlin Reimann, co-founder ofuBack, another fundraising startup that brings companies, donors, and nonprofits together for causes that matter, added to the conversation: "The economic and social landscape in Chicago makes for a unique environment for entrepreneurs. It's a mixture of tech prowess and economic insight, with a strong focus on collaboration. It is widely understood the challenges we (as a city) have with violence, discrimination, equal access to services and health care, which motivates corporations, entrepreneurs, and community leaders to innovate, engage and work together to solve these bigger issues."
So, while Chicago might not wear the same sort of crown as Silicon Valley, or have the "name in lights" allure of New York City, the entrepreneurship scene here is doing more than meets the eye. In fact, one could argue that the worst thing Chicago could ever try to be is something that it's not.