Chicago’s Growing Tech Hub: Next Generation of Entrepreneurs Graduated June 15!

By Marina Dedes, VP, Lightbank

With 197 new startups launched in Chicago last year, tech skills have become more important now than ever. Unfortunately, for the typical high school student, the opportunity to learn coding or creative critical thinking is almost nonexistent.

But thanks to Chicago Tech Academy, high school students now have the chance to be part of a program that teaches them how to build a business. They are grooming the next generation of tech leaders and entrepreneurs in the heart of Pilsen. On June 15, the founding class of Chicago Tech Academy graduates with the necessary “real world” foundation and technical skills to launch a startup.

The 70 graduating students are armed with a high-quality high school experience that spans beyond the basic core classes such as math and English. In addition to a four-year college prep course load, students take two technology classes per day. As the education system in America struggles to innovate, ChiTech is creating a unique experience for its students.

Creating Chicago’s Next Leaders

For many of the students, access to mentors and role models is a strong benefit of Chicago Tech Academy. Several of the school’s teachers left their industry jobs to challenge the notion of traditional education. Through their leadership and enthusiasm for technology, students see an example of how impactful education can be.

This past year, my colleagues at Lightbank and I partnered with Chicago Tech Academy to create “Launch,” an after school program. As part of the Launch experience, students gain firsthand insight into the process of making their ideas a reality. Since many of the Lightbank employees come from entrepreneurial backgrounds and we work with startups day in and day out, we can offer valuable support and feedback.

As part of the program, we visit Chicago Tech Academy biweekly to mentor students as they develop business plans. When we meet with students, we offer the same dedication we would give to a startup we funded, and help the students see the full potential of their idea – and themselves. For many of these students who hail from underprivileged portions of Chicago, the opportunity to meet with entrepreneurs and investors is invaluable. And during every visit, I’m impressed with the students’ motivation, enthusiasm, and creativity.

Earlier this year, students had the opportunity to come to our offices to hear pitches from our in-house founders. The tables turned a few months later, when sophomore students were invited to our office for eight-minute pitches to a panel of local tech leaders and investors. Everyone was impressed with their businesses, which solved real-world problems and ranged from an affordable Internet provider to a personalized workout app.

Gaining Real Experience Both Inside the Classroom and Out

Typically, high school students’ after-school jobs consist of babysitting or hosting at a restaurant. Instead, Chicago Tech Academy students are offered the opportunity to spend part of their senior year as interns. To expand student’s real world skills beyond the classroom, Chi Tech matches students with local companies

By the second semester of their senior year, students have completed enough credits to take classes in the morning and spend their afternoons at an internship. With skills in HTML5, Photoshop, web design and more, students complete high school well-equipped to contribute to a company and be part of a team.

As the founding class prepares to graduate in June, they’ll be thoroughly prepared to join the real world, or even launch their own startup. After mentoring students and seeing personally how motivated and driven they are, my colleagues and I have no doubt they’ll be successful. We’re honored to contribute to their success, and we can’t wait to see how their ideas, skills and passions will influence the Chicago tech community.

Marina Dedes

Marina Dedes


Marina Dedes is a Vice President at Lightbank. She joined the firm in April 2011. Prior to Lightbank, Marina was a Senior Associate in the Valuation Group at Duff & Phelps. Marina holds a BS in Materials Science and Engineering with a concentration in Biomaterials from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Marina is active in the Chicago tech community and serves as a Junior Board Member at Lawrence Hall Youth Services. Follow Marina on twitter: @MarinaEDG.

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