Students Dive Into Chicago's Growing Tech Scene

8/11/2016 4:07:06 PM Ugonna Akuba

Think Chicago Lollapalooza participants pose for a group picture after a behind the scenes tour of one of the main stages.
Think Chicago Lollapalooza participants pose for a group picture after a behind the scenes tour of one of the main stages.

Nearly 200 students from universities all across the country gathered in Chicago from July 27th to the 29th for Think Chicago: Lollapalooza to immerse themselves in Chicago’s tech scene as well as attend Lollapalooza, a four day Chicago music festival.

More than 700 students applied to the three day program hosted by the University of Illinois, City of Chicago Mayor’s Office and World Business Chicago, but only a select group of students made it through the rigorous application process and got a chance to view Chicago through a new tech lens.

“I always loved this city” Arnav Argawal, a junior majoring in Computer Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said. “But now it’s good to see that there is a place in the Midwest with a lot of tech opportunities and it’s not just Silicon Valley.”

The program gave students a feel for what Chicago has to offer within its tech ecosystem. One of the main purposes of this program was to encourage students to stay in Chicago after graduation to be a part of the growing tech scene, in addition to making Chicago stand out for students amongst other traditional tech cities, like Silicon Valley.

Think Chicago participants were even able to meet potential employers and leave an impression on them at the Company Showcase, which included companies like Civis Analytics, Dough, Enova, Morningstar, 1871, and many more. Students got a chance to interact with company representatives and get a better understanding of what it’s like to work in within Chicago’s tech scene.

“The atmosphere as a whole is way different than Silicon Valley” Vai Pahwa a junior majoring in Statistics and Computer Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign said. “It’s very laid back, but also serious. Silicon Valley makes [the tech world] seem more cutthroat. People are much friendlier here and their passion really stands out to me.”

Think Chicago Lollapalooza participants listen to the Civic Tech Panel (Kenneth Watkins, Chief Security Officer at Blue 1647; Shelley Stern, Director & Community Advocate at Microsoft Chicago; Katie Olson, Associate Director of Operations at City Digital; Danielle DuMerer, Chief Technology Officer and First Deputy Commissioner of City of Chicago; and Tom Alexander, Chief Operating Officer at 1871)
Think Chicago Lollapalooza participants listen to the Civic Tech Panel (Kenneth Watkins, Chief Security Officer at Blue 1647; Shelley Stern, Director & Community Advocate at Microsoft Chicago; Katie Olson, Associate Director of Operations at City Digital; Danielle DuMerer, Chief Technology Officer and First Deputy Commissioner of City of Chicago; and Tom Alexander, Chief Operating Officer at 1871)

The atmosphere of the program was created by various speakers, company tours, and opportunities to network with fellow students and attend Lollapalooza.

Some of the key note speakers included Deputy Mayor Steve Koch; Jimmy Odom, Senior Policy Advisor at IL Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and Harper Reed, CEO of Modest, Inc. Students also got to hear from a Civic Tech panel that included Danielle DeMurer, First Deputy Commissioner & CTO, City of Chicago – Department of Innovation and Technology; Katie Olson, Associate Director, Operations, City Digital at UI Labs; Shelley Stern, Director of Civic Engagement, Microsoft; Kenneth Watkins, CSO, Blue1647 and Tom Alexander, COO, 1871.

The speakers had a positive impact on their listeners through the connections that they formed by sharing their stories. Arielle Rausin, a senior majoring in Business Administration at Illinois said, “A lot of the speakers started out by saying I was just like you three or four years ago, and that’s really encouraging to hear. It’s a good reminder to believe in what you’re doing because these stories are coming from people you perceive to have a lot of success.”

In addition to the speakers, the company tours made this experience seem more tangible. Students got a chance to see various companies including Braintree, Catalyze Chicago, Citadel, Civis Analytics, Cleverbridge, CME Group, ContextMedia, Dough, Enova, kCura, Microsoft, Morningstar, Motorola Mobility Raise and Rise.

“It’s been really nice to walk around actual company spaces,” said Ritu Raman, a PhD Candidate in mechanical engineering and the winner of the 2015 Illinois Innovation Prize. “To see what the spaces look like physically and the type of resources they use made it a lot more real.”

Most of the companies that the students visited were technology based and many students were either computer science majors or engineering majors, but it’s important to note that the Chicago tech scene is inclusive to all majors.

“I assumed everyone would be an engineer,” Raman said. “Literally the first few people I met were political science majors, psychology majors and business majors.”

Out of the 200 students that attended Think Chicago: Lollapalooza this year, 38 percent of them are studying engineering, 27 percent are studying computer science, 16 percent are studying business, 11 percent are studying a social science, 4 percent are studying economics, 2 percent are studying mathematics and another 2 percent have a background in natural sciences.

Melissa Wu, a senior majoring in Finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said, “You definitely got the feeling that most people were in CS or some type of engineering, but at the same time the tech world can apply to any major.”

Think Chicago: Lollapalooza participants networking with each other on a boat tour along the Chicago River.
Think Chicago: Lollapalooza participants networking with each other on a boat tour along the Chicago River.

While the agenda was tight and filled with speakers and tours, networking with other students was highly encouraged. The participants had many opportunities to engage with other students from coming up with ideas with their Civic Tech Challenge groups to networking on a boat tour along the Chicago River.

Shivam Bharuka, a junior majoring in Computer Science at Illinois, understands why networking opportunities, no matter how small, are important. “With experience from previous start ups, I realized that it’s important to have people to talk to and ask about their experiences,” Bharuka said. “You could meet someone here and they might want to work with you on an outside idea or even become a potential co-founder to your startup.”

Think-Chicago: Lollapalooza is an annual event and students are encouraged to apply every year. It gives students a wealth of knowledge about Chicago and its tech scene, and inspires graduates to invest their time to this city.

“U of I talks a lot about branding and making sure people realize that even though we are in the Midwest, we’re a really good and prestigious school. It feels like Chicago is doing the same thing,” Raman said. “It’s trying to brand the city as a cool place for young people to work where you can have fun, but also be serious and get work done.” 

It is clear the students that attend Think-Chicago: Lollapalooza understand what the program is built for and will take that knowledge with them forever, potentially being a part of Chicago’s growing tech eco-system.