In the News: ChiTech Students Weigh In on Chicago’s Startup Scene

This article originally appeared at ChicagoInno 

For all the conversation about retaining tech talent from local universities, there’s another pool of Chicago talent that is often overlooked: high school students.

Given Chicago Public Schools is the first district in the country to make computer science a graduation requirement, Chicago’s teenagers will soon be among the best positioned nationwide to take on tech careers. However, given the rising cost of public education, they’re also more likely to leave the state after high school than ever before.

Chicago Tech Academy, a University Village tech-focused school, sought to deepen the connection between its high school students and the local tech and business community through a month-long internship program. Now in its second year, 71 out of 76 of the school’s senior class participated in a February immersion program where students took on full-time paid internships at tech companies, startups, businesses and organizations across Chicago.

I sat down with four seniors at Chicago Tech Academy, interning at 1871 startup CodEmoji, Black Tech Mecca, and TechNexus, to hear about their experience in Chicago tech. How do they see tech in their future, and what do they think of the local tech community?

Tyler Wilson

Tyler Wilson

TechNexus: Tyler Wilson

When Tyler Wilson was a sophomore at Chicago Tech Academy, he had a moment of self doubt. He had long aspired to be a computer engineer, but wondered if he was only following that career path because his dad worked in tech as an information security consultant. To put his fears to rest, his dad went out and bought the parts to three computers and asked Wilson to put them together. Wilson built the three computers on his own (and has since built more).

“Once I did that, I knew that was definitely what I wanted to do,” he said.

Now a senior, Wilson is an intern at TechNexus (the founder, Terry Howerton, is a cofounder and founding chairman of Chicago Tech Academy). He’s currently researching partnerships for the coworking space in the video game industry, as well as shadowing software engineers at TechNexus companies to better understand the day-to-day life of an engineer. Before spending time at TechNexus, he wasn’t convinced of the startup world.

“When I thought of startups before I didn’t think about the people behind them,” he said. “Because I heard of startups before and they just kind of had fallen off the radar. I didn’t really think of them actually blowing up into these mega-corporations.”

Given the startup world’s high failure rate, that’s not a surprising conclusion. But he said his experience at TechNexus, and a conversation with Ocient (whose founder Chris Gladwin sold his startup Cleversafe to IBM for over $1 billion) has also opened his eyes to the possibilities of startups. “I want to innovate and invent something that will help people and now that I’ve been here, I see that it’s possible,” he said.

Chicago Tech Academy integrates tech and networking throughout the curriculum, so Wilson had previously done mock interviews and business etiquette workshops at TechNexus. Due to this, Wilson said that it hasn’t been too hard for him to connect with the local tech scene, but he’d like to see more events where Chicago startups connect with high school students who aren’t focused on tech everyday. And while his top choices for college are outside Chicago and Illinois, he said he wants to play a role in getting more kids into the tech scene in the future.

“I plan on coming back to Chicago because I think this is where the tech scene is at,” he said. “And once I’m back here, I want to…actually be a part of spreading the tech scene to the generations to come.”

Makesiah Gavin

Black Tech Mecca: Makesiah Gavin and Rommel Royster

It was the “black” and “tech” part of Black Tech Mecca that piqued the interest of Makesiah Gavin and Rommel Royster, both 18, the duo said while sitting in the organization’s offices in South Loop coworking space Moxe. Both Royster and Gavin said they wanted an experience that was focused on tech, but also about building relationships and community–Royster hopes to work in psychology and Gavin has plans to major in criminal justice and social work.

“Tech companies, we know like there are black people that work within them, but we’d never heard of a company like Black Tech Mecca–like ‘we’re here for you,'” said Gavin. “So I felt that’s what [drew] me to them.”

In their internship Royster and Gavin have come face to face with some of the challenges Black Tech Mecca is trying to address, including quantifying the black tech community in Chicago to create better, targeted solutions to the underrepresentation of African Americans in tech: One of Royster’s duties is to create a database of successful black entrepreneurs in the area, which he’s found harder than expected.

Rommel Royster

However, the experience has also helped the students see opportunity in the tech world that they didn’t know existed. The two visited local offices of Google and Twitter, where employees assured them that the skills needed in the tech world go beyond coding–a psychology major could help translate data to real world products, while a social work major could help the platforms create tools to spot and curb abuse.

“I can have a place here,” said Royster. “It broadened my horizons. Instead of just sitting down to help people…it’s learning where else I could be.”

Now their mission is to help their fellow students find a place for themselves in tech. They’re currently planning a networking event at their school where tech workers and entrepreneurs will share their journeys with current Chicago Tech students. Throughout the internship, they’ve been building personal websites, which they plan to show their classmates and encourage them to create their own. While both said it hasn’t been easy to connect with tech companies as students, they emphasized that a responsibility lies on students to prove to tech companies why they should be hired.

“They can check out our website, they know more about us,” said Gavin. “This is the person that I want for our company. I know that she’ll help us, I know that she’ll move us forward.”

Aurice Brauton

Codemoji: Aurice Blanton

Aurice Blanton had long known he wanted to be a teacher, but it wasn’t until his Codemoji internship that he considered teaching code. Previously he considered a career a physical education teacher, eventually becoming an athletic director (he’s on the school’s basketball team). But one of his duties at Codemoji, an 1871-based startup that uses strings of emojis to teach kids how to build their own website, was to test the platform out with his younger siblings and cousins. And when he sat down to work through the coding challenges with his younger relatives, something clicked.

“I really want to be a teacher when I get older, and it made me feel like I was growing to be the teacher that I hope to be one day,” he said. “This is pushing me more toward become a teacher who teaches code. I want to go deeper into code, learning about CSS and Javascript, and finding out ways I can help improve the world with coding.”

The experience has also given Blanton a look into how edtech products are developed–Codemoji is incorporating some of the feedback that Blanton collected from his 6, 8, 9, and 13-year-old relatives. But it’s also given him a new perspective on what’s happening in the city, especially around the tech and startup scene.

“It just showed me that it’s not a bunch of big buildings and small streets, its actually things being done. People actually [care] about if people are learning [about] the technology world,” he said. “They’re teaching, and not keeping it all to themselves.”

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