THE BLOG

Chicago and the Nation's Best and Brightest

08/02/2013 12:03 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013

Last fall, I led a group of 40 companies to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus in order to sell their top tech students on moving to Chicago. Why? Because Chicago suffered a lost generation of tech talent. The founders of PayPal, YouTube, Netscape and Yelp, who were trained in Illinois, left to start their companies in Silicon Valley. But a new generation of tech talent is staying here, starting new companies and helping to send a signal that Chicago has made a definitive cultural shift from being the "hog-butcher of the world" to being a hub for cutting-edge tech talent.

To maintain this talent and attract the workforce they need to grow their companies, we have to do more than travel to graduates in order to sell them on Chicago as we did last year. We must also bring them to us, as we are doing this weekend. This weekend Chicago plays host to Lollapalooza, as music fans from around the nation flock to Grant Park for three days of songs and sun. Among the throng this year will be 100 of the most promising tech students from around the country. These students will be here for ThinkChicago:Lollapalooza, a three-day immersion with our city's greatest tech minds and, probably just as importantly, exclusive passes to Lollapalooza.

Whereas Lolla brings the best bands in the world to Chicago, this weekend it will bring us the best tech talent from around the country, not just to see a good show, but to see what until now has been a far too well-kept secret, even among Chicagoans -- that Chicago has arrived as a top destination for tech talent. We are no longer the fly-over city when it comes to the tech industry; we are the new launch-pad. They will be meeting with the heads of more than 50 leading tech companies like Google, Belly and GrubHub, touring the new facilities that have been popping up along the digital alley between the old Montgomery Ward and the Merchandise Mart, and I will be personally speaking with them at 1871 to give them the hard sell that the suburbs of Palo Alto, while they may be nice, are no place for the inventors of the next big thing to spend their twenties.

Our goal is that by the end of the weekend, these students will think twice about heading to the coasts after graduation and decide to locate in America's third coast -- sweet home Chicago.

But there is a larger goal still to convince not only these 100 students, but Chicagoans as well, that the dynamism and diversity of Chicago is not confined to this weekend, or to the sites in the Loop and River North. Rather, world-class events like Lolla are about bringing the best and the brightest to Chicago for the weekend, but, unlike in the past, keeping them past graduation to start a new company that will contribute to our economy, and be the next GrubHub.

We are focused on doing everything we can to bring those companies, and all the economic development and opportunity that follow in their wake, to Chicago, from investing in our CTA system, to putting in place the largest bike network of any city in the country as well as one of the largest bike sharing programs, to building out giga-bit speed broadband throughout key parts of the City. Not only is a new tech startup created here every 48 hours, but just last year 197 new startups got $391 million in funding -- more than ever before.

There has been a sea-change in the Chicago tech community, qualitatively and quantitatively, with an ecosystem of new start-ups popping up across the city, as well as a cohort of investment firms locating here, ready to fund them. If the price of a ticket to Lolla and a few strong introductions is what it takes to prevent the next PayPal from leaving to Silicon Valley, then it would still be bargain at twice the price because every neighborhood and every Chicagoan will feel the benefits of the burgeoning tech community that is taking root here.