As most entrepreneurs know, startup success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It usually thrives because the startup, and the people who run it, have been supported by a vast network of people who believe in innovation and entrepreneurship.
The Illinois Technology Association (ITA) is acknowledging those who have supported the growth of the Illinois technology community with its ITA CityLIGHTS Awards. These awards are presented to individuals or businesses that actively and consistently supported the tech community through “collaborative involvement in community programs, donation of time and expertise of personnel, financial support, and involvement in the development of future leaders of Illinois industry and bringing the national spotlight to the Illinois technology industry.”
I had the chance to speak with Sarah Habansky, Vice President of Programs for the ITA. Below, she shares more information about the CityLIGHTS Awards, as well as her insight into the Chicago startup scene.
Tech Cocktail: How has the Chicago startup scene changed since you’ve been involved with the ITA?
Sarah Habansky: The ITA has been around for 8 years – in fact we just celebrated our anniversary a couple of weeks ago. The focus on the startup scene has been heightened by the work of many in the community, specifically through 1871, CEC, Mayor Emanuel and more. It’s an exciting time in Chicago! ITA is really committed to growing the companies that proved their product – they have their first round of funding or have achieved a level of security in their business model. We help them grow from the startup phase to the next level of evolution, the Growth Stage phase.
Tech Cocktail: What are some of the benefits and challenges facing Chicago startups right now?
Habansky: The first thing that comes to mind is the willingness of leaders to get involved, lend a hand, and share their experiences – positive and negative – with the next generation of companies that was mentioned above.
Another benefit is the efforts of the entire community to drive visibility of these companies. Sure, Chicago and the rest of Illinois are seen as a manufacturing hub, and we certainly have a lot of it. Illinois is also home to 32 Fortune 500 Companies. Add the startup & growth stage company renaissance and it’s a perfect match. Illinois-based tech companies offer products and services for every industry vertical you can imagine: clean tech, manufacturing, financial services, and so much more. Having all these great companies learn about the work of the next generation of companies leads to transformation of industries. ITA works to increase the awareness of the next generation of industry disruptors to the general community.
The ITA CityLIGHTS Awards Gala is one of the ways we create that awareness and introduce companies to each other.
Tech Cocktail: Are there any trends we should be aware of in Chicago, as it relates to entrepreneurship/startups?
Habansky: There is a lot of support in Chicago for startup and growth stage companies! The community offers so many opportunities to get involved; we are continually impressed by the sheer amount of opportunities to get to know more about the community, to learn how to get started, and then to scale and expand. The celebration of this community is on the upswing, and we applaud that!
Growth stage companies are doing well in Chicago. We have seen so many great products earn their due reward and attention. Our member companies are creating jobs, leading the growth of the local economy, and supporting the next group of companies that are working to achieve those same goals. That’s one thing that has not changed… the willingness of the local community to support the next generation of founders and leaders. It’s one of the things that truly differentiate Chicago from the rest of the country’s great tech centers.
Tech Cocktail: What do you look for in a CityLIGHTS nominee?
Habansky: Well, it depends! Each award celebrates different aspects and stages of development, so the criteria are unique to the award. But the CityLIGHTS Awards themselves celebrate visionaries – people who thought of a new approach to an existing issue and are using technology to transform it; those who are taking a fresh approach to attracting talent; and those who are utilizing a technology product to differentiate their product or service. We are celebrating and recognizing the game changers, and our nomination window closes this Friday, March 15, so we encourage companies to submit soon.
Tech Cocktail: How has being involved with your organization helped past participants?
Habansky: ITA continues to evolve our product, just like our member companies. We develop new programs around the needs of our members.
A few years ago, we heard it was tough to find talent. So, we developed and held the ITA Fall Challenge, our first programming skills tournament across Illinois universities. Through the event, we met hundreds of technology students and introduced them to the local industry and our great member companies. Since then, we have introduced interns, full-time employees, and, most importantly, technologists to the community. Generating awareness of the local tech industry among the next generation of talent is crucial to ensure future growth. Across all our talent programs, we have filled more than 100 positions.
One specific example, we recently held a customized ‘Scrum’ for a member company who was trying to figure out its marketing positioning. We pulled together a group of four marketing leaders who gave two hours of their time consulting with the company. They provided their professional expertise and experiences, literally leapfrogging the learning curve for the member.
Finally, CityLIGHTS winners receive a one-year membership to the ITA, and that gives the entire company unlimited access to all our programs and events to help them transition to the growth phase. Past CityLIGHTS winners – such as GrubHub, MentorMob, Gogo, Braintree, Redbox and Allstate – can take advantage of networking events, panel discussions, job postings to the ITA TalentBoard, and discounts from our great partners, helping them better achieve their goals and make the critical transition from startup to growth stage company.
So, remember to submit for the ITA CityLIGHTS Awards by this Friday for an opportunity to gain access to these invaluable resources.