I attended the most non-traditional conference of my graduate career this past month and, since it’s an opportunity open to every student at Illinois, I wanted to share my experiences on this blog.
The Technology Entrepreneur Center at Illinois (TEC
), in collaboration with the Chicago Mayor’s office, organizes an annual conference called ThinkChicago | Lollapalooza
. The focus of this conference, held in July this year, is to introduce young aspiring entrepreneurs to the vibrant start-up scene in Chicago and incentivize them to use Chicago as a base for their own ventures. The conference also provides the short-term incentive of free Lollapalooza tickets – if that’s not motivation to apply/attend, I don’t know what is!
As is the case with more traditional conferences, the core of ThinkChicago’s programming was focused on attending talks (including a keynote from Harper Reed – a big name at PayPal, Threadless, and Obama for America).
One big difference from traditional conference talks, however, is that every talk at ThinkChicago seemed engineered to inspire and energize. While I enjoy technical nitty-gritty on a day-to-day basis, it was really refreshing to take a break from academic life to hear the funny, strange, and unpredictable life stories of some of Chicago’s most successful entrepreneurs. Best of all, the conference organizers did a superb job of securing a speaker line-up that showcased the diversity of Chicago.
In addition to speakers with diverse background and experiences (folks from social work, technology, government, etc.), ThinkChicago also included perspectives from several women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. This showed a commitment to equal and fair representation that really resonated with me and my career goals.
ThinkChicago’s programming also included several tours to emerging and established companies and “maker spaces” in the city, which were certainly eye-opening. Having always been relatively entrenched in the world of academia, I had no idea what to expect in an industry workplace, especially in an urban environment.
I have to say the companies did an amazing job of selling me on their lifestyle – vibrant open workspaces, tons of opportunities to be independently creative, and some pretty jaw-dropping perks (catered foodie-worthy free lunch every day?!). While they didn’t quite manage to change my mind on pursuing an academic career, they definitely taught me the value of creating beautiful and inspiring workspaces to encourage teamwork and creativity. I will certainly remember this lesson when I establish my own lab some day!
The best of ThinkChicago was, of course, all the wonderful people I was able to meet. The conference had plenty of opportunities to network (and network in style!), including a night-time boat cruise ending in a fantastic fireworks display.
I was surprised to find that student attendees included both undergraduate and graduate students from incredibly diverse fields beyond traditional STEM disciplines, such as political science and business. In fact, the crowd at ThinkChicago was so young (and hip) that I felt a bit like an old lady at the grand old age of 24. In addition to injecting some youthful vigor back into my soul, this made me realize how much I’ve learned about myself and my career goals during graduate school. I’ve grown so much over the past four years, and this conference served as a happy reminder of that fact.
The most exciting (and unexpected) part of ThinkChicago was taking part in the Civic Tech challenge – a competition where attendees worked in randomly assigned teams to identify and propose a technological solution to any civic problem in Chicago.
My team had noticed that most Lollapalooza attendees stay close to Millennium Park, ignoring all the exciting activities Chicago has to offer. We thus proposed a modification to the official Lollapalooza app and wristband that would give festival-goers incentives to explore all the neighborhoods of Chicago (thereby boosting local small-business profits).
After a backstage tour of the Lollapalooza grounds and stages (true engineering marvels!), we pitched our idea on one of the stages. I was truly thankful for all the public-speaking experience graduate school has given me, and fielded the judges’ questions with all the confidence of an almost-PhD. And… we won!!!
I was honored to receive such an award from the Chicago Mayor’s office, plus free Lollapalooza tickets for next year and a commemorative 25th anniversary Lolla skate deck. I was also rather proud of myself – I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pitch a technological solution completely unrelated to my research and still seem coherent!
Finally… Lollapalooza! Apart from being my first music festival, it was just an incredibly fun experience and an amazing place to people-watch. I’m fairly extroverted and just enjoyed being around that many happy, excited, music-loving, and colorful human beings.
Overall, ThinkChicago | Lollapalooza was inspiring, energetic, and more than a little exhausting. I loved it, and would encourage anyone even remotely interested in entrepreneurship and innovation to apply to attend!