World changing ventures from Facebook to Dropbox, as well as local startups Moneythink to UProspie, were started by university students. And as entrepreneurial energy on campus is only growing, we have to wonder: who will be the next dorm room startup success story? If you’re a student who just arrived in Chicago, it could be you.
Chicago is an emerging tech ecosystem with rich entrepreneurship resources. Though it isn’t as developed or deep as its coastal counterparts, it’s a tight-knit community with a Midwestern attitude focused on solid products and good business. It’s also a quickly emerging ecosystem with serial entrepreneurs moving onto new ventures, and leaders looking for the next rising stars.
So how do you get involved in the startup and tech ecosystem in Chicago? Read on to find out the can’t-miss events, meetups, coworking spaces, accelerators, incubators and venture competitions, plus tips from students who have navigated the ecosystem before.
There are plenty of ways to stay involved in entrepreneurship, even if you’re sticking around campus, said Sanam Chakraborty, 21, a senior studying business at Purdue University and co-president of Ms. Tech’s Purdue chapter. She recommends connecting with your school’s entrepreneurship center to check out events and create an on-campus network of entrepreneurial peers and mentors.
“See what entrepreneurship classes are [offered] and use that as a springboard,” she added. “Speaking to the instructors is always helpful because they usually come from an entrepreneurial background. Also, if your classmates are in an entrepreneurship class, chances are they have an interest in starting something up. Leverage your connections with your peers, it’s bound to take you somewhere.”
School-focused entrepreneurship centers
Most local universities offer entrepreneurship resources including access to mentorship, business development, legal advice and access to funding.
- University of Chicago: Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship
- Northwestern University: The Farley Center for Entrepreneurship, The Garage
- University of Illinois at Chicago: Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies
- DePaul University: Coleman Center
- Loyola University Chicago: Quinlan School of Business and Loyola Limited
- Illinois Institute of Technology: Knapp Entrepreneurship Center, University Technology Park
- School of the Art Institute: Career and Professional Experience, Department of Arts and Technology studies
- Columbia College Chicago: Department of Business and Entrepreneurship
- University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign: Technology Entrepreneur Center, UI Research Park
- 1871, which has permanent workspace at its Merchandise Mart headquarters for each of the following universities: Northwestern University, University of Illinois, University of Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, Illinois Institute of Technology, and DeVry
To get a business running, you’re likely to need capital, which comes in a few forms: bootstrapping (you pay your own way), friends and family (you ask Mom and Dad to lend you the cash to get started), crowdfunding (such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe), pitch competitions (where you explain your business to judges who award small amounts of funding), and angel investors (individual investors who write larger checks) and venture capital.
Students don’t necessarily need to pursue outside capital until they have their business off the ground with some solid traction. But TransparentC founder Mitch Kirby, 27, who won UChicago’s New Venture Challenge this year, said it doesn’t hurt to build a network among investors.
“For a few months before officially raising, I met many of the different VCs in Chicago to run the idea by them and just familiarize them with what we were trying to do,” he said. “When it came time to actually raise a round, it was smoother because it wasn’t the first time they heard about the idea, they had had a lot of time to think about it and watch our progress.”
University venture competitions
- Future Founder’s U.Pitch (open to any university)
- Student Startup Madness (open to any university)
- University of Chicago’s New Venture Challenge
- University of Illinois at Chicago’s Startup Challenge
- UIUC’s Cozad New Venture Competition
- UIUC’s Illinois Innovation Prize
- Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago Innovation Challenge
- Northwestern University Venture Challenge
- NxtFund/Northwestern Start Fund (only for Northwestern startups)
- Impact Engine
- National venture funds focused on investing in students
- This post has a good list of local angel investors
Additional VC resources
- PGVC fellowship program
- Lightbank fellowship program
- Chicago Ventures fellows program
- Hyde Park Angels, OCA Ventures, internship programs
Meeting other entrepreneurship-minded peers is key to And don’t be afraid to reach out to those you look up to, said Ali Afridi, an analyst at venture capital firm Lightbank. Afridi, 20, who just recently made the jump from computer science student at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign to Chicago’s VC world, said that’s how he got his foot in the door.
“One thing that I will say about Chicago’s ecosystem, a lot of people at tech companies, founders, CTOs are pretty open to getting a cold email and getting coffee,” said Afridi. “I’d reach out to people who I thought were doing interesting and try to get 30 minutes of their time to grab coffee. Those 30 minute one-on-one interactions helped me build good relationships in the ecosystem.”
There are tech and startup meetups and events almost every day in Chicago, so keep your eye on Chicago Inno Approved, BuiltIn Chicago, Chicago Tech Events, Meetup and Eventbrite for a rotating selection of events. We pulled together a list of meetups specifically for young people in tech, as well as major events that happen throughout the year. Or just take a friend/potential co-founder to lunch in the Merch Mart food court and see who you run into.
- Campus 1871
- Think Chicago (Ideas week and Lollapalooza)
- Sage Summit
- BuiltIn Brews
- Blue Sky Social
- Chicago Inno meetups
Another major part of being in Chicago’s tech ecosystem is keeping up-to-date with the latest news, growing startups, funding announcements and startup culture. So we pulled together the best news sources, social media and organizations to follow to keep you in the know.
- The Chicago Inno Beat
- BuiltIn Chicago
- Chicago Tribune’s Blue Sky Innovation
- Crain’s Chicago Business
- Tech in Chicago podcast
Facebook groups, Twitter lists and blogs
- Ms. Tech FB group
- Future Founders FB Group: FF Startup: Building your Legacy
- Ali Afridi’s Medium
- Hyde Park Angels blog
- Polsky Center Medium
- Chicago Inno Twitter list
- BuiltIn Chicago Twitter list
- Illinois Technology Association
- World Business Chicago
- Illinois Science and Technology Coalition
- Future Founders
- The Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization
- Ms. Tech
- Tech While Black
- Black Tech Mecca
- Women Tech Founders
- Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
There are more than 80 coworking spaces, accelerators, incubators and maker spaces across the city. At least one probably caters to whatever kind of business you’re trying to grow.
We’ve got a handy list of all the coworking spaces in the city here, but we also pulled out several standout innovation hubs and programs that span the geography of the city and offer specific resources depending on your needs.
- BLUE1647 (Pilsen and Englewood)
- The Shift
- Lakeview Labs
- Brooklyn Boulders
- Polsky Exchange
- Indie City Co-Op
Accelerators, incubators, fellowships
- Future Founders Startup
- Northwestern Wildfire
- Polsky Accelerator
- Polsky Incubator
- Summer @ Polsky
- U of I iVenture
- Hispanic Incubator
- Data Science for Social Good
- Chicago Fashion Incubator
- Good Food Accelerator
(Image via Pexels)