By Jessica Droste Yagan, chicagobusiness.com
Chicago is a city of extremes. It gets very hot and very cold. We have some of the most generous and kind people I know, yet violence is exploding across the city. The tech sector is booming, yet entire swaths of the city have seen little to no new opportunities. Dependent largely upon our skin color and ZIP code—which are inextricably related—Chicagoans are either gaining in educational attainment and benefiting from rising property values and increasing income or they are experiencing the opposite.
Make no mistake, the status quo costs us all: Nations with greater inequality tend to have fewer periods of sustained economic growth. Is it a coincidence that Chicago ranks in the bottom third of the world’s largest economies for GDP growth and employment?
I have a bias toward optimism and action. Yes, we have problems with racism and inequality. Yes, we have an epidemic of violence. But what can those of us in the business community do about it?
One obvious answer lies in jobs. What more can we do to strengthen and hire from Chicago’s entire diverse pool of talent? Start by rethinking recruitment. For example, more than 100 types of jobs in Illinois, from animal health tech to interior designer, are off limits to ex-felons. State and federal tax credits for hiring ex-offenders have encouraged some companies to examine their policies, but many more need to rethink this practice.
We can look for ways to allow different types of candidates to shine. For example, Skill Scout, one of the portfolio companies at Impact Engine, is a recruitment tool that helps manufacturers and health care companies hire for middle-skilled jobs. The tool makes it easier for people who have impressive skills that don’t always come through on their resumes get jobs, while meeting a critical need for employers struggling to fill openings with quality candidates. To date, 70 percent of those placed have been unemployed or under-employed individuals.
We can also invest in building the talent pool. Companies can follow the lead of Microsoft, which supports STEM skills and workforce readiness through paid summer internships for high school students, student mentoring and project-based learning programs based on real-life STEM challenges. Companies can get involved with organizations like I.C. Stars, which trains and places young Chicagoans in IT jobs.
Investment is another tool. We can invest in promising startups that will make an impact on inequality because of who they are started by, who they are committed to hiring, where they are located and what they are creating. At Impact Engine, we seek both financial and social return from every investment, and one of our impact focus areas is economic empowerment—creating equitable access to financial services and jobs. Look to 1871’s partnerships with organizations such as the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for talented but typically underrepresented entrepreneurs to support.
Finally, getting involved in Chicago’s civic community can make a difference. Educate yourself on the policies and partnerships that are the backbones for success or failure, and learn about the mistakes of the past and the innovation that is the promise for the future.
Don’t be paralyzed by the negative media and the depth of the challenges. After all, Chicagoans have never been afraid of hard work.