The future voices of ChiTech Academy

I just returned from a visit to Chicago Tech Academy and my first visit with an assembly of the 150 new freshmen… and I am inspired! This third class of students seems to be the most inquisitive, the most engaged and the most eager bunch of students I’ve met at the new high school.

The reputation of ChiTech after the first two years and a targeted recruiting effort to find great potential students attracted a motivated group of kids. They were eager to learn about internships and mentors and careers they might enjoy; they had many questions about entrepreneurship and where the ideas and confidence come from to start companies. These new students asked about programming languages and video game design, about field trips they might take to local tech companies and about the people they might meet. They asked about using technology if they became doctors or architects.

I spoke to them about the power of voice to ideas. I talked about the voice of Bill Gates 30 years ago in defining the personal computer revolution; about the voices of engineers who pushed to interconnect computers in real-time, and of Andreessen and other college kids who designed the web browser not far from Chicago. I admired the voice of Steve Jobs as he introduced the iPad, and of Zuckerberg when he weaved a social network through hundreds of millions of people around the world.

We spoke with the students about the power of their own unique voice, and how it someday could be used to express ideas, explain solutions and inspire. We talked about the breakneck speed at which technology has given voice to a planet full of people, and how technology can flatten the world to bring people together, bound by common humanity instead of divided by differences. We talked about how now, like no time in history, they have an opportunity for their voice to be heard, and it may be because of experiences and lessons learned at Chicago Tech Academy.

This conversation about voice– to ideas, to inspiration, to expectations of themselves – begins a conversation that I hope will last through high school and beyond. I hope it will continue as the students meet mentors from Chicago’s tech community, as they grow and mature and begin to look beyond their current circumstance. It’s an innovative approach, to think of a ChiTech education as an extended conversation between disadvantaged students and an engaged community willing to share advantages… after three years, we’re seeing some very inspiring results… you can hear it in their voices.

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Our message to the teachers of ChiTech Academy…

They’re one week into the third year for Chicago Tech Academy, the new public high school we created to teach and inspire the next generation of Chicago’s techies and entrepreneurs. One of many unique facets of ChiTech is the extensive involvement of Chicago’s tech community… as mentors, donors, and boosters; as hosts for interns and field trips; and as role models and connections for young people reaching out for great careers and bright futures.

I spent time today in the classrooms, and to meet and work with many of the new teachers (a dozen were hired this year out of more than 1,200 applicants).  It’s fun to see so many new faces from the freshmen class, and to see how far the familiar students have come since I first met them.

When the idea for this school was first presented, I didn’t want much to do with it. The original plan was a sort of vo-tech school that aspired (at best!) to get kids certified with basic technology skills and ready to enter the workforce. I argued for higher expectations, and a program that developed aptitude and inspiration and connected the kids with a network of people that could shape their futures. Our objective should be at minimum students ready to get jobs after high school, but our aim should be to inspire many to reach higher.

There will soon be 600 students enrolled at Chicago Tech Academy. They are a diverse group drawn from across the city. Some kids commute more than three hours a day to and from school. Many of the students are ready now to go to college, and some are already working on business ideas. Others have entered the school far behind their classmates; nearly one in five require some sort of special education. Most of the students come from disadvantaged homes and neighborhoods. But there is an overwhelming sense of pride in the hallways – these kids sense they’re part of something different, and recognize their unique opportunities.

Chicago’s tech community should be proud of the progress of this school, and the hundreds of community leaders that have volunteered their support. We have a very long way to go, and enormously high expectations for what can be achieved. But it’s clear to me today that we’re on the right track.

This morning in the “Entrepreneurs in the Making” class, I watched sophomores brainstorm a list of common traits for founders and entrepreneurs.  They filled a white board with ideas, but the first three on the list were Creativity,Courage and Confidence.

Later, I spent the afternoon with the entire teaching team (now 43 members strong). I spoke about ChiTech as a start-up, what it will take for us to succeed and the collaborative spirit in which we’re building the school. My message to teachers drew from those three entrepreneurial traits the students had identified in class:

  • Creativity – we encourage the creative approach of this school and its teachers; as a charter school, they can experiment in ways most public schools cannot, and we reward teachers that bring new ideas to relevant curriculum, differentiated instruction and positive behavioral support. We’re asking teachers to involve industry projects into their classrooms, and nurture skills specific to techies and entrepreneurial thinkers.
  • Courage – we celebrate the bold teachers and the audacity of this school to set very high expectations for students, many of whom are experiencing high expectations for the first time in their lives; there are plenty of less courageous options: we could have only chosen gifted students, or kids that had been favored by good education; we could have embraced a routine curriculum, or placed less emphasis on the personal development of each student.
  • Confidence – we embrace the mission of this school, to extend opportunity to students, families and neighborhoods that aren’t well connected to our tech community; we want teachers who are confident because they’re part of a team of real pros, and backed by community of industry leaders that want to be involved and help.

It’s been my privilege to represent Chicago’s tech community and provide some leadership and support in launching this school. There’s plenty of need and room for more help… I encourage you to become a donor or signup as a mentor (email the mentor coordinator Amanda). Or, if you want to talk about the school and even bigger ways to get involved, feel free to contact me directly… I’d love to chat.


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Chicago tech companies and the game industry

On the set of Good Day Chicago this morning talking about the game industry, and showing some love for two of Chicago’s favorites Games and Tribeca Flashpoint Academy.

The universe of gamers has exploded in the past couple of years from a market of 60 million people largely playing console games, to more than 300 million people playing mobile and social games. A console game like Madden NFL, which has sold more than $3b and is one of the tentpole games that props up the entire industry is evolving to include more social and real-time interactivity to keep pace, but it’s clear that waiting on a console game release will soon be a thing of the past. is a start-up that helps advertisers and brands integrate within this new gaming world, and target broader demographics that previously possible. Tribeca Flashpoint Academy is one of the cutting edge schools where students are learning hands on how to design and deliver the future of the gaming industry.

Madden NFL Boosts Video Game Industry: Terry Howerton :

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Back to school for ChiTech

We created the Chicago Tech Academy three years ago as an urban charter school to inspire and connect kids with futures as techies and entreprenerus. It’s been an incredible experience helping to build this new school, and seeing real outcomes from efforts with the students.

As ChiTech prepares to welcome the third freshman class, I’m thrilled with the teachers and team that’s been assembled. More than 1,200 applied for only 12 new teaching positions; we recruited educators from across the country — former Intel engineers & people from Chicago’s tech community, and the most motivated teachers we could find.

This is a big year for the school, as we begin to see measurable outcomes from the strong industry involvement and mentorship, differentiated instruction and emphasis on hands-on, practical skills that keep the students attention. If you haven’t signed up to show support — either as a mentor or donor, please consider doing so now.


“Waiting no more” to inspire Chicago’s future tech leaders from Chicago Tech on Vimeo.

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Motorola and Google could impact Chicago innovation

Google’s acquisition of Motorola for $12.5b could be a huge event for innovation in Chicago and is as much about the history of the mobile industry as it is about the future. The company that invented the mobile phone lost considerable luster over the past decade. What was once one of the greatest engineering firms in the world – an engine of innovation and patents few corporations in history could match – had become just another hardware manufacturer, competing with the likes of HTC and Samsung but losing badly to Apple in a market where hardware and software integration is becoming an obvious advantage.

Google’s acquisition announcement may come as a surprise, but it’s actually not very shocking. It’s the most obvious move for both Google and Moto, a marriage preordained when Moto Mobility split away as an independent business, adopted Android as its exclusive software platform, and dangled those 17,000 patents (and another 7,000 patents pending) as a lure. Motorola needs Google’s leadership if it has any chance of rising above the other hardware manufacturers, and Google needs Moto’s patents to protect the future of Android.

Motorola knew it needed more software integration and expertise and they’ve been cultivating stronger relationships with Chicago’s innovation community. Several members of the advanced research team from Motorola are regulars inside TechNexus, meeting and greeting and interacting with dozens of startups that flow through those walls each week. We’ve had many behind the scenes conversations with Motorola to identify the app developers, entrepreneurs and engineers that might help them better understand and integrate location-based-commerce, social and other services into their unique flavor of Android and stand out in the market.

One of the great missed opportunities for the Chicago tech community over the past 20+ years has been the relative lack of a cluster of related tech companies that just never really grew around Motorola. But under Google’s leadership, Chicago may become a major battleground in the mobile industry wars, and the opportunity for a cluster of innovative startups and ideas could result. Think about the possibilities for a more tightly integrated Groupon or Grubhub into Android/Moto devices, and then imagine hundreds of similar business opportunities. Motorola doesn’t just make mobile phones, and Android isn’t just software for your smartphone. The possibilities for a boom to Chicago’s entrepreneurial and engineering community is very real, and this acquisition could provide significant fuel.

Navteq – the Chicago company that pioneered navigation and the location based services platform – still sits here in our backyard. They’re becoming fully integrated into Nokia as a business unit, where a partnership with Microsoft already exists. It’s not hard to imagine a mega acquisition for Microsoft resulting in another integrated hardware and software play.

Apple lost the early days of the PC war by betting on an integrated OS and hardware, but they’ve made a strong case that mobile is different, and clearly have out innovated everyone else with the iPhone. Now Google moves to acquire a hardware leader in Motorola. It’s possible Microsoft isn’t far behind with Nokia. WebOS from Palm ended up in the hands of HP (though I’m skeptical they can leverage it, and probably should acquire RIM/Blackberry to complete their expertise). Samsung and HTC are the big losers right now in the Google/Motorola deal… their decision to standardize on the “open source” and independent Android OS finds them now in direct competition with Google.

More people on planet earth carry a mobile device than have indoor plumbing – more than 65% of the world’s population is tethered to a mobile subscription. At the rate of adoption, within four years that number will rise to more than 85%… there will be more mobile devices than people who have shoes. It’s an astounding market, and the battle for corporate dominance is just beginning.

Battle lines are clear and the big guys are at war. Patents – in particular a treasure trove as rich as Motorola’s intellectual property, are a necessary weapon to allow further innovation. Google was too young of a company to have a strong patent portfolio, but their competitors were threatened enough to team up to fight Android on this front (the unholy alliance of Apple and Microsoft in acquiring Nortel patents was a major shot across the bow of Google’s ship).

But the mobile market is not just about the history of innovation, and these patent plays are just about opening the door for future ideas and competition. With Google’s acquisition of Motorola, much of that future innovation could come from Chicago.


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Startup Spotlight: Hireology, SpotHero and Power2Switch

Showing some love for a few young tech companies growing in Chicago.

Chicago-Based Websites Part of Local Technology Business Boom: Terry Howerton: helps users switch electricity providers in less than 10 minutes and save up to 30 percent on electric cost. helps small and medium size businesses figure out what kind of questions to ask interviewees to find the right people to hire. allows drivers to reserve parking spaces in Chicago neighborhoods like Wrigleyville during a game. Also, people who own spaces can post them on this site for drivers to find.

A couple of these companies have grown from inside TechNexus.


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700 Chicago Tech leaders hear about progress with tech academy at ITA CityLIGHTS

Last Thursday night’s ITA CityLIGHTS event was special, particularly for the students of Chicago Tech Academy in attendance.

From the stage, I told guests about this new urban high school that we created to inspire and teach technology and entrepreneurship. It’s a close, innovative partnership between Chicago’s tech industry leaders and teachers.

The new school is open to all students, and more than 1,000 kids entered the lottery to be a part of the next freshman class.  Many of these students are experiencing high expectations for the first time. With your help, they’ll learn to expect great things from themselves, and our community will be better for it. It doesn’t matter where these students come from, we can impact where they’re heading.

This school is a startup. Raising the donations to fund the school, developing a strong mentoring team and curriculum, and keeping a visible connection to the entrepreneurial and tech industry is critically important.

You might enjoy the video from our student lottery… and please feel free to pass along to others:

“Waiting no more” to inspire Chicago’s future tech leaders from Chicago Tech on Vimeo.

I hope you’ll consider joining me as a volunteer “booster” of this school. To learn how, drop me a note, or visit the school’s website.


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“Waiting no more” to inspire Chicago’s future tech leaders

We helped create the Chicago Tech Academy for selfish reasons: the number of high school students going to college to study science, technology, mathematics and engineering is desperately low. As employers and entrepreneurs in the tech industry, the 700 members of the Illinois Technology Association already have trouble filling skilled jobs today, and the looming gap in five years was critical.

“Waiting no more” to inspire Chicago’s future tech leaders from Chicago Tech on Vimeo.

Mayor Daley recognized the workforce need, and challenged us to create a public school that would match students with the right curriculum, teaching approach and connections to industry to inspire a new generation of technology leaders. We decided to search for students from some of the most challenging parts of the system: open enrollment, accepting motivated students from across the city, regardless of their prior academic performance. We found students for our first freshman class already at or above grade level in reading, math and science. We also found students who were many grade levels behind, and committed to teach both toward a path for success.

We just completed our third freshman lottery and more than 1,000 hopeful students waited to hear their name called. Word had spread that this new school was a place for kids to learn the basics, and so much more. ChiTech students learn from a curriculum that includes hands-on, relevant technology skills, infused with an entrepreneurial spirit. Right away, freshmen study computer science, programming and how technology can solve problems and create value in the world. They interact with mentors that teach them about building businesses and reinforce the importance of staying in school. They learn to set expectations of themselves, and grow from the expectations placed on them by hundreds of teachers and mentors from Chicago’s tech community.

The average age of people inside mission control during America’s first trip to the moon was 26 . Eight years before, when JFK challenged America to go to the moon, all of those engineers were in high school. Chicago’s competitiveness in the world depends on today’s high school students, and it is simply not sustainable to have over half drop out of school. All kids – not just the ones who made it onto selective enrollment tracks or lucky enough to come from families and communities that can help – deserve a positive view of their future.

Chicago Tech Academy’s story – just like the story of each of our students – is still being written. Not unlike startups in the tech world, this school is also just a startup. We’re not spending a bunch of new money, we’re just investing more of our time and creativity. We do know we’re making a difference: though kids commute up to three hours a day to and from school, our average daily attendance rate was 92% last year, about 10 or 12 points higher than the CPS average. Despite a heavy enrollment from at risk youth, we finished our first year with more than 75% of students on track to graduate, a key predictor of future success for freshmen.

Students took regular field trips to Microsoft, Google, NAVTEQ and many other Chicago area tech companies big and small. They interacted with dozens of mentors and guests at the school. They created web sites, studied video game design, produced videos and podcasts, learned programming skills and built computers. They wrote business plans for new ideas they developed as a team, and honed critical life skills like public speaking, analytical thinking and problem solving.

We recognize not every school can count on heavy involvement from industry leaders… even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer took time out to be a mentor at ChiTech last year. But in everything we do, we keep an eye toward how our efforts might become replicable and scale beyond the walls of our school. We’re humbled by the job before us, and the monumental need for others to get involved in the public school system to help make a difference. We understand success depends on engaged parents, passionate and serving teachers, a rigorous but interesting curriculum, the right school culture and lots of connections to the world and workforce these students will someday enter.

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