Diversity in Startups in Illinois

By Heidi Hattendorf


Entrepreneurs collaborating in the

Residency program by Future Founders

at 1871 in Chicago.


Diversity is the engine of Innovation.  It generates creativity that enriches the world.”

– Justin Trudeau.


It has been well documented and generally recognized that bringing together people from different perspectives and backgrounds can be a key driver of innovation.  This makes natural sense for varying levels of diversity to bring about new ways of thinking and breakthrough ideas.  The Diversity and Inclusion of team members with different perspectives and backgrounds is a key lever in driving innovation.  However, in many industries including technology, there still remains a gap in representation compared to the overall population and an opportunity to further embrace and close this gap.      


One group that depends greatly on Innovation and new thinking is Startups.  In the past, startups were typically associated with Silicon Valley and the West coast.  But after years of investment by a combination of government, businesses and partnership with Universities, the landscape is changing.  Today, the Midwest, with Illinois in the center has established its credibility as a key location for startups and attracting Venture Capital funds.  


Recently First Round Capital ran a survey across the country to explore ‘The State of Startups’ and included Diversity and Inclusion within that study.  The responses showed that 75% of startups have a policy and strategy on Diversity and Inclusion.  In the research, they also cited the following reasons for underrepresentation of women and minorities in tech:  lack of minorities and women in the pipeline, unconscious bias in hiring, poor recruiting in STEM and lack of industry role models. There certainly is room for improvement and change around the country.


Illinois is embracing the opportunity for startups with Diversity and Inclusion as a key driver.  Venture Beat published an article that looked at how 34 organizations across Illinois are promoting diversity in working with startups.  This includes a mix of addressing gender diversity in tech, ethnic and racial diversity and other factors.  Chicago has become an excellent center for startups with hubs such as M-Hub and 1871 being focal points for entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and customers to gather.  The energy and results are contagious and builds momentum.


“Chicagoans are pragmatic and have a sensible idea of what can be achieved. But most importantly, they are grounded in their motivations for disruption. And that’s exactly what positions Chicago to be the next global hub for innovation.” -By Yazin Akkawi  Founder and principal, MSTQ;  Inc.com May 24, 2017.


One organization in Illinois that has been active with startups at multiple age levels and focused on Diversity and Inclusion is Future Founders based in Chicago.  Their mission is that ‘Every Youth Can Become an Entrepreneur.’   Scott Issen, CEO, is dedicated to continuing to drive Diversity and Inclusion and believes it is crucial to both innovation and business success.   “One example is their Residency program, in which selected aspiring millennial entrepreneurs participate in a six-month accelerator designed to empower them to start businesses. In fact, the Residency pilot is sponsored through a grant from the Blackstone Inclusive Entrepreneurship Challenge, which is sponsored by the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, World Business Chicago, and ChicagoNEXT.  Scott Issen described the diversity focus, “We believe the diversity of the Residency, including different perspectives, backgrounds, ethnic and gender differences, is a key driver in bringing out the best ideas to create the best businesses.”  Future Founders works with a range of company types, age groups, ethnic backgrounds and skill sets.


Around the state, there are many other avenues for helping startups and focusing on the Diversity within the organization.  The Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) is one example.  IIN is a common platform where startups, innovation-driven enterprises, service providers, research and academic institutions, and community leaders connect, share ideas, and offer tools and resources.  They are focused on helping to accelerate the growth of businesses and industries in the state and beyond. The Illinois Science & Technology Coalition in references from the organization PitchBook, show that alumni from Illinois universities started more than 1,100 companies and raised more than $9 billion in funding over the past five years. Alumni founders came from diverse fields, with no one field accounting for more than 10 percent of all founders.


The Diversity of industries in Illinois is incredibly broad including the following from University startups:  Biomedical/healthcare, Software/IT, Finance/Business Services, Agriculture, Food technology, Consumer Products, and Education to name a few.  This is a contrast to other parts of the country which tend to focus on specific sectors.  This form of Diversity is yet another driver for innovation and opportunity in the state.


The startup activity in Illinois continues to extend around the state.  Another good example is Startup Peoria.  Their vision is “to provide entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs with the tools, resources and ecosystem to ideate, collaborate and launch successful businesses that contribute to the long-term growth and prosperity of the local economy.”  


Though there is a journey ahead on driving further Innovation through Diversity and Inclusion, it is exciting to see the statewide efforts, jobs available, results and opportunities created right here in Illinois.  It is encouraging to see the Diversity gap closing right here.


Heidi Hattendorf is the Director of Business Innovation & Transformation at Motorola Solutions in Chicago; leader of Mission Critical public safety solutions.  




2615total visits,1visits today