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CityLIGHTS @ 20 years and the Future of Chicago Tech

This week Chicago’s tech community celebrates its 20th anniversary of the CityLIGHTS Awards. I use the term community because while CityLIGHTS is a program of ITA, its success and longevity are a testament to a broad spectrum of the community … a paradigm we as the community need to emulate going forward.

If you look at those who have been previously recognized as finalists of CityLIGHTS, you see a veritable who's who of Chicago Tech over the past 20 years. Companies like Cleversafe, Sprout Social, GrubHub and Fieldglass and even older companies like NAVTEQ and Initiate Systems came in the view of the general industry as part of the CityLIGHTS program. They were recognized here long before they became the household names we know today. Overall, the sheer numbers are quite astonishing .... You see almost $53 Billion in exits among those finalists. You see multiple IPOs. You see $3.5 Billion in venture capital. And that’s just among the winners! The fact is……. CityLIGHTS has, for the past 20 years, been the precursor of what’s to come in Chicago tech.

So how was CityLIGHTS so successful in recognizing the future?

Because it was developed for and with the community in mind. From the onset, CityLIGHTS was looked at as community awards. More than 50 people made up of executives across the industry were involved every year in multiple rounds of judging. When community voting was implemented, it became part of the decision matrix, not its entirety. In so doing we limited biases such as sheer popularity, who was on the board of ITA, where investments had been made, or specific agendas. Choose the best and brightest without sticking to a singular ITA position. It was the community leading the charge to recognize and laud the community.

As I reflect on the anniversary, it got me thinking about how we need this mindset right now If we are going to take Chicago tech to the next level.

When I came to Chicago in 2005 and started the ITA, I found the mojo of business a bit curious. When we wanted to execute new ideas that brought together the various corners of Chicago, frankly it was initially met with skepticism. Every time we tried to do something community focused, somebody would invariably comment “Did you ask the mayor's office?” And when we didn’t, many chose not to get involved. The pervasive mantra was one of looking to City Hall for leadership. CityLIGHTS succeeded because we never asked permission, we just did.

Now is the time for that spirit to be promulgated much wider. In 2013, I wrote a piece called State of the Industry about what I believed were the key metrics that would define us as a thriving technology community. We've made progress on many, but we've got a long way to go as well. The execution of the rest will only happen through the collaboration of the Chicago tech leaders. The tech community needs to recognize that it’s incumbent on us alone to meet our goals. The model of government leadership, chosen or not, is no longer the place we turn to for community leadership.

We got a bit of a free pass for a long time, but now it’s time for our leaders to drive the train. If we want more venture capital, it's up to us. If we want future workers, both attracted and developed, we need to make it a priority among ourselves. We need to come together as a community to drive success at our hands alone. The success of every tech company in Chicago is tied in part to how the community thrives. We can do much more as shown by CityLIGHTS and the great companies being recognized this week … we’ve just got to execute.

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