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The changing nature of collaboration in Chicago

Since the beginning of this year, a recurring question has been popping up in my conversations with Chicago tech professionals: “Why aren’t we collaborating more in the community?” It’s the first time I’ve had so many people asking this vital question at the same time, which to me indicates a necessary sea change in the way we’re thinking about the nature of collaboration in this city.

For a long time now, Chicago has been talked about as a naturally collaborative and welcoming tech community, but I’d take the (perhaps controversial) stance that the opposite is true. For 10 years, the base of ITA’s success has been that we’re good at making collaboration happen where it didn’t happen before. We’re committed to connecting people and exposing new opportunities for motivated organizations—and we do this because such collaboration rarely happens in this city without a push.

It’s been tough to get collaboration to happen naturally in this city, because, in my experience, it’s not in most Midwesterners’ nature to ask for assistance. And while people are generally happy to help when asked, they rarely offer unsolicited assistance, perhaps out of a misplaced sense of humility. Additionally, the Chicago tech sphere, robust as it is, does not yet have the density required for such connections to happen automatically. Silos remain. We have the resources and ability to collaborate on the same level as Silicon Valley or New York, we just need to foster the drive to get ourselves to that point.

Collaboration is the basis of any good tech ecosystem: Organizations need to be able to find and share ideas, resources, and mentorship, from the executive level on down. But collaboration requires a certain level of selflessness, a willingness to share resources—perhaps even with competitors—without a concrete ROI. Chicago’s status as a developing tech hub can feed a “me first” mentality among competing interests; but this zero-sum outlook can hamper our ability to grow as a community, which ultimately holds everyone back. In order for the Chicago tech industry to reach full maturity, those working within the industry must take a broader view of what success really means.

ITA’s focus is on growth-stage companies, which means I’ve witnessed over and over again the life cycle of successful (and unsuccessful) tech organizations. When you’re focused so intently on scaling a business, it can be easy to lose sight of your place in the broader tech ecosystem. But it’s important to remember that collaboration happens across the tech spectrum, and all companies have something to give and gain, regardless of their current position on that spectrum. Start-ups can benefit from the mentorship and resources provided by top-level companies, while top-level companies can draw on the innovation and energy of start-ups to help jumpstart their own operations. No matter a company’s size and stature, there’s always room for further development, but it cannot happen in isolation.

Now that I’ve answered the question of why we aren’t collaborating more in Chicago, the next logical question is how can we change that? People are noticing the need for change, and we must feed off that momentum. I encourage you to look at whatever organizations or groups you’re involved in to determine where connections can happen that haven’t happened before. On an individual level, find five companies you’ve never heard of before, and meet people from that company. Take an active role in collaboration, don’t wait for opportunities to come to you.

The old adage “a rising tide lifts all ships” has never been more applicable to Chicago tech than it is right now. We’re all in this together, and if Chicago’s tech sphere is to reach full maturity, the various players in this ecosystem must forge new connections and support the collective as well as their individual interests.

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