Originally published on Forbes.com.
This weekend, hundreds of thousands of music fans will come to Chicago to attend the Lollapalooza Music Festival in Grant Park. About 100 of them will be students in Computer Science, Business, and Engineering from top universities such as MIT, Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Illinois. They will be participating in Think Chicago, a selective program designed to attract talent to Chicago’s growing tech entrepreneurship sector.
Participants who are accepted to the program receive a three-day Pass to Lollapalooza, a walkthrough of the artist compound and production areas and an opportunity to meet with the Lollapalooza producers.
Before the festival, they attend panels moderated by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and prominent Chicago business people, including Siri founder Dag Kittlaus, BrightTag CTO Eric Lunt, Eved founder and CEO Talia Mashiach and GrubHub co-founder and CEO Matt Maloney. They also meet individually with local entrepreneurs to get feedback on their resumes and interact with recent grads who are currently working in Chicago.
“Chicago is a real music town,” Mayor Emanuel told me. “We’ve got more festivals than any other city in the summer. Lollapalooza is the big one but we also have the Blues Festival, the Gospel Festival, Taste of Chicago. We have the Dance Festival. I think that having a city that’s fun and exciting with a lot of activity enables you to start to recruit the talent that drives the digital economy.” The mayor himself is a music fan who grew up going to Chicago blues clubs and is often spotted at rock shows.
Chicago ranks 8th in the world in its number of startups. A variety of developments point to Chicago’s growth as a hub of technology entrepreneurship. This includes the opening of 1871, a collaborative center of 225 startups run by The Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center that has created 800 jobs and raised $27.6 million in its first year. New Enterprise Associates, one of the country’s most established venture capital firms, recently confirmed it will open a Chicago office to be closer to the city’s technology startup scene. The fund, which has about $11 billion in committed capital, has already invested $380 million in 20 Chicago companies, including Groupon.
Participants in Think Chicago will get to know the tech scene in Chicago. They will have one-on-one meetings with entrepreneurs and Chicago representatives from companies such as Microsoft, Catamaran, Nokia, Google, Braintree, Belly, Brightag, Civis Analytics, Cleversafe, Jellyvision, kCura, Power2Switch, Sprout Social and Vibes, helping them build a strong professional network as they head toward graduation.
Participants also get to experience Chicago as a vibrant place to live. “Everybody talks about the ecosystem: funding, talent, ideas, research,” said the mayor. “I think talent is one of if not the most important ingredient to building a good general economy. And there’s no doubt that the quality – with a capital Q – quality of life, matters. This means bike lanes, music, culinary, craft beers, everything that goes into making a city fun.” One of Think Chicago’s panellists is Grant Achatz, owner and chef of the acclaimed Alinea restaurant.
By highlighting quality of life, Chicago takes advantage of the “urban shift” in high-technology startup activity. As veteran entrepreneur and venture capitalist Paul Graham said, for all of its advantages, Silicon Valley “is now one giant parking lot.” Cities that offer graduates an attractive labor market as well as an exciting urban lifestyle have real leverage over smaller towns or suburban sprawls. According to Richard Florida, head of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, big cities are increasingly attractive to college graduates. “Today’s younger techies are less interested in owning cars and big houses. They prefer to live in central locations, where they can rent an apartment and use transit or walk or bike to work, and where there are plenty of nearby options for socializing during nonwork hours.”
An advantage of Think Chicago is that participants not only interact with forward-thinking people in Chicago but also have an opportunity to form bonds with each other, especially as music festivals have become a popular way for young people to experience music together. “I think they’ll have fun,” said the mayor.
Of the participants in Think Chicago’s inaugural class in 2011, more than half moved to Chicago upon graduating college, which suggests the program is having a positive impact. This year the program received more than 1000 applications for 100 spots.