Entrepreneurs, money mavens in big debate

January 23, 2006


Chicago's a town that likes to debate. We mix it up. This is the city where Kennedy bested Nixon in the first televised presidential debate. Illinois is the state where Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated slavery's abolition.

Tonight, Chicago's tech community will hold its own conclave to debate the city's knowledge economy future. Dubbed "The Great Chicago Tech Debate," the program is expected to attract 200 local tech leaders who will gather at the offices of Gardner Carton & Douglas.

At issue is whether Chicago is doing enough to transform its knowledge economy potential into real entrepreneurial businesses that create jobs and economic prosperity. The smart money players argue that Chicago doesn't produce enough bankable entrepreneurs with experience, guts and chutzpa. The aspiring entrepreneurs claim money managers are too conservative and won't back the business builders. So the fight is on.

On the money side are: Ellen Carnahan, managing director of William Blair Capital Partners, and Tom Churchwell, managing partner at Arch Development Partners. Both Carnahan and Churchwell are veterans of the local venture capital community, having backed many local ventures.

Speaking for the entrepreneurs are: Jerry Mitchell, president of the Midwest Entrepreneurs Forum, and David Weinstein, president of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center. Mitchell founded 12 companies, eight of which went public or were sold or merged. As special assistant for technology for Mayor Daley, Weinstein created the Mayor's Council of Technology Advisors and gained hands-on entrepreneurial experience as CEO of Blue Meteor, a failed Internet start-up.

Rounding out the panel is Jack Lavin, Gov. Blagojevich's point man on economic development and director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

The debate is the brainchild of Adarsh Arora, president of TiE -- The Indus Entrepreneurs -- and CEO of Lisle Technology Partners. Arora is a serial entrepreneur who seeks more successful local tech start-ups. Tonight's debate will shed light on techniques and strategies, and who should be responsible for making it happen.

CDW Makes Fortune list (again)

Does it pay to spend time and money creating a top flight work environment?

John Edwardson, CEO of Vernon Hills-based CDW Corp., thinks so. Edwardson is all smiles because his company is on Fortune magazine's list of the 100 Best Places to Work. The current issue places CDW at No. 34, the highest perch of any Illinois company. It's the eighth consecutive year CDW made the list, and scored in the top 40.

"People don't realize what a great recruiting tool this is," says Edwardson, who meets regularly with new hires. The CEO asks whether new employees know CDW is on the Fortune list. "Hands go up," says Edwardson, who concludes CDW's efforts to be a great working environment help attract talent.

Breaking into Chicago tech

Maria Pistone thinks Chicago tech is pretty accessible. The 28-year-old Boston native arrived in March 2003 with no contacts, a background in molecular biology and a desire to learn about start-ups.

"I wanted to transition from lab work to the business side," says Pistone, an associate at the Chicago ITEC (Illinois Technology Enterprise Center) located on the West Side. Today, Pistone is on a first-name basis with the leaders of the biotech community.

"I did everything I could to get involved," Pistone says. "I looked at regional Web sites like www.illinois.gov/tech. I found iBio, the biotech trade organization. I went to meet people," she says. Her networking led to meetings with Michael Rosen, a local entrepreneur, and Nancy Sullivan, executive director of the Center for Women Entrepreneurs in Technology at Northwestern.

"I went to every networking event. I volunteered for an iBio committee," Pistone says. Through her networking Pistone met her current boss, Kathryn Hyer, executive director of the Chicago ITEC and director of life sciences at Illinois Ventures, the seed stage venture capital firm. Under Hyer's guidance, Pistone reviews prospective business plans and explores the commercial potential of new technology. She's studying for an MBA at the University of Chicago.

Pistone's advice to aspiring tech professionals: "Get involved."

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.


 ©2006 Marion Consulting Partners