Located in the heart of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, tech incubator BLUE 1647 hides inconspicuously in a bland brick building on Blue Island Avenue. You’re likely to walk right past it unless you catch the small blue sign posted on the glass door.
Inside, BLUE 1647 CEO Emile Cambry walks me through his co-working space, which he admits is quieter today but is still bustling with innovation. The lobby opens up into a large workroom where people are coding and designing apps. In a room off to the left a group is putting the finishing touches on a documentary. In the back corner three 3-D printing machines are buzzing as different creations begin to take shape.
Cambry knows Chicago is in the middle of a technology and innovation wave, and he’s making sure the city’s south and west sides don’t get left behind.
“Too many times technology comes to the south and west sides of Chicago after it’s been old,” Cambry said in his office. “Designing something on the computer and being able to print it off and see it happen, it’s really transformative for many folks. And if you’re not seeing that early on, you’re not going to know how you can participate. And before you know it, that gap becomes so wide that the only thing you can do is pack the boxes to ship the stuff people 3-D print as opposed to creating it yourself.”
BLUE 1647 opened in August 2013 and serves two main purposes: to provide a co-working space for local tech startups and to serve as a learning lab for students. Since August BLUE 1647 has worked with more than 1,200 Chicago students, teaching a wide range of technology skills. Along with being an education center, Cambry sees his incubator as an after school alternative to violence for the students who live is some of Chicago’s more dangerous neighborhoods.
“We know of every basketball camp or basketball league in Chicago,” he said. “And that seems to be the solution to violence, just another basketball league. We really wanted to be a place where people say, ‘You know, let me send my youth there, let me send my adults there who want to learn to get to the next level.’ And for the adults that are building stuff, they want to have talent, a pipe line.”
It’s the combination of eager students and established entrepreneurs in the tech community that has Cambry excited about BLUE 1647. Cambry, a University of Chicago graduate who worked on Barack Obama’s election campaign to become U.S. Senator, spent four years as an investment banker at JP Morgan but returned to grassroots community work in 2008 during the economic downturn.
“I saw a bunch of youth what needed jobs and opportunity. And I saw a lot of stuff in tech … I thought, lets try and educate the next group.”
And being located in Pilsen has allowed the BLUE 1647 to become one of the most diverse co-working spaces in Chicago.
“I wanted youth to be inspired by the adults that they see, so they can see people that look like them,” Cambry said. “See different types of people. See young people. See women. They want to see different types of folks that are building stuff, and I think that isn’t done enough.
“You don’t have to look like Mark Zuckerberg to have fun with technology.”
Cambry regularly brings in high school students from the south side to create projects like a DJ app program, which showed students how to make an app and eventually created a mix tape. A group of high school girls participated in a Girls in Fashion Tech Program where they made T-shirts with electronics that would light up to the beat of different songs, and also created necklaces using the 3-D printing machines. More advances entrepreneurs have created apps like Left for Good, which works like an Uber for perishable goods. Restaurants and event organizers with left over food use the app to find organizations in need. Another entrepreneur made an civic app that shows sources of government funding in Brazil, and he has been hired by the Brazilian government to help provide more transparency.
Despite all the innovation happening at BLUE 1647, tech companies aren’t knocking on the door looking for employees, Cambry said.
“[Hiring] is not happening as fast as I thought it would,” he said. “I think you still have a lot of people who believe that since it’s not downtown or River North, it’s not as good or it’s not as impactful or not as powerful. We’re slowly breaking down those barriers, but it still hasn’t happened, unfortunately.”
While acknowledging the importance of larger Chicago tech incubators like 1871, Cambry said there needs to be more of an effort to increase technology into all parts of the city.
“You look at San Francisco, New York, DC, Austin, they have multiple places like this. Dozens when you talk about San Francisco,” Cambry said. “So if you want to be Silicon Valley, maybe start increasing the number of places and locations … There shouldn’t be either or. Or one place is good or bad. We have good, positive stuff going on. We bring a different vide to the table. We’re not trying to be another place. We’re trying to be different.”
Photo by Jim Dallke
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a fact that was published prematurely.