September 2014

CSMART Brings Smart Grid Technology to Chicago

On September 22nd, I attended the ribbon cutting for the Center for Smart Grid Applications, Research, & Technology (CSMART) at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It was attended by a number of state leaders who are interested in seeing the fruits of this center. Sen. Richard Durban, Congressman Bobby Rush, and Karen Weigert (the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer) were in attendance. Heavyweight partners of this endeavor were also there including ComEd, Silver Spring, and West Monroe Partners.

It is something of a mistake to call the event a ribbon cutting because it is more of a groundbreaking ceremony.   Not because we ceremoniously put a shovel into the ground, but because of the groundbreaking work that Dr. Mohammed Shahidehpour is doing as Director of the Galvin Center for Center for Electricity Innovation. Or perhaps it should have been called a plug-in ceremony because, as Sen. Durbin commented, CSMART “will make Chicago a hub for Smart Grid applications for years to come”.

Smart grids are at the center of the profound changes in our nation’s energy. CSMART is a lab that is dedicated to researching, testing, and analyzing the latest smart grid technology in a real world environment. It is a model that I am strongly in favor of, in that “it brings together academic, industry, and industry experts” to quote Congressman Rush, “to advance smart grid technology”. The public/private/academic partnership that IIT has pulled together for the CSMART is absolutely exemplary.

They have built a fully-functional test environment for the advancement of smart grid technology, and the deployment methodologies. If you follow the smart grid space, you will undoubtedly see the wide range of research and analysis projects coming out of CSMART. The first round of projects include Smart LED street light operations testing, cloud-based distributed energy resource management (ConnecttheGrid™), and data analytics and real time interactive dashboards to visualize the operations the grid.

I believe that the work that we are doing right here in Chicago is going to provide the foundation for technological advancements in energy usage, resource management, and environmental planning. Not to mention that it will be creating loads (pun intended) of great data that can be used. Microsoft is working to create the tools, technologies, and models to help accelerate scientific understanding of energy on a global scale that uses data such as these. As Karen Weigert said, the core of innovation takes place with that layer of data and transparency in place.

Every day, researchers at Microsoft Research are working with our partners, including academic partners, to accelerate scientific insights that advance our understanding towards what can be accomplished with regards to a safe, sustainable, and resilient energy supply for large cities.   And to that end, I am excited to see how the leading researchers at IIT are expanding the boundaries of knowledge of what can be done with respect to energy.

STEM + Thrive = Changing Youth Lives

A wide range of industries throughout the U.S. have openings for workers with knowledge and skills in STEM fields, but it is becoming increasing difficult to find individuals with the background to meet this demand. Without a national effort to improve STEM education and increase the number of graduates in these fields, this trend is likely to continue and even worsen over time.

While this troubling national trend is present in Chicago, the good news is that we have been working hard and making great progress, due in large part to Thrive Chicago, a public/private partnership focused on “collective impact”. I have personally participated in and supported Thrive Chicago activities from its genesis, and am pleased to share with you our guest blog from Arnie Rivera, newly appointed Deputy Chief of Staff for Education for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Brian Fabes, CEO of Civic Consulting Alliance, describing the progress and bright future for accelerating STEM skills in Chicago. – Shelley Stern Grach

Arnie Rivera, Brian Fabes, STEM

Arnie Rivera (L) and Brian Fabes (R)

Chicago has a vision to become the next Silicon Valley, and to support that vision the city is abuzz with activity. From organizations like the HIVE Learning network that connect communities of learning and creativity in STEM fields, to the Tech Hub of 1871 that’s become synonymous with innovation, to and its wildly successful “Hour of Code” – a sizable portion of the civic landscape in Chicago is investing time and money on STEM projects.

Despite these efforts, a significant number of Chicagoans still find themselves unprepared for a career in a STEM field. In 2018, Chicago will have an estimated 447,000 jobs, almost 70,000 projected to be unfilled at any given time, in STEM fields. More than 80% of these open positions will require a post-secondary degree or credential, but fewer than 5% of public school youth are reaching that milestone. Too many youth in Chicago will miss out on careers in high-paying and fast-growing STEM fields.

“Bending the curve” on a young person’s trajectory often requires multiple organizations to work together, in an act we refer to as collective impact, and in Chicago collective impact strategies are now organized under the banner of Thrive Chicago. Thrive was launched last year in the Mayor’s Office, with the goal of improving improve outcomes for youth through collective impact. Bringing together city agencies, non-profits, community-based organizations, philanthropy, and corporations, many of Thrive Chicago’s initiatives are focused on the goal of preparing youth, starting in pre-K and supporting them all the way through college, for the attractive jobs offered in STEM fields.

For example, Thrive is engaging K-8th grade youth in STEM enrichment and academic activities, that together result in a five-fold increase in students’ likelihood of graduating high school. This cross-organizational Thrive team, co-chaired by Chicago Public Schools and the HIVE Learning Network, is improving improve both access to and the quality of STEM-affiliated out-of-school-time programs.

In another part of the Thrive-STEM effort, data are being shared for the first time between service providers – including the public schools – on youth who are in programs. Today, those serving young people can gain a full picture of a participant’s development, helping to shape the nature of services delivered, or providing just-in-time interventions when necessary.

The extraordinary partnerships that we are supporting through Thrive Chicago – collaborations including the Chicago Public Schools, the out-of-school-time community, philanthropic and corporate partners, and others – are ensuring that Chicago’s youth will be prepared to meet the future in STEM careers. Together we are accomplishing more than any one organization or even sector could on its own.


THRIVE’s vision and mission is to see that Chicago is a city where all succeed in education, career, and life and they will do this by preparing all of Chicago for a vibrant future by aligning efforts and outcomes from cradle to career. Thrive Chicago employs a Cradle-to-Career collective impact strategy. Collective impact describes the commitment of a group of influencers from different sectors to a common agenda for solving complex social problems. Currently 188 Organizations are affiliated with Thrive Chicago.  


Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Arnaldo (Arnie) Rivera to be the City of Chicago’s new Deputy Chief of Staff for Education on August 4th, 2014. He is responsible for the coordination of the administration’s education policy agenda for the City of Chicago from early childhood through the City Colleges. Arnie brings over a decade of experience working in education, most recently as the Chief Operating Officer of The Chicago Public Education Fund, where he was responsible for the organizations financial and operations management, as well as overseeing its communications and development strategies.  He had previously served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Chicago Public Schools, where he served on the senior team responsible for the planning and execution of the Full School Day outreach strategy and the expansion of the International Baccalaureate programs in Chicago’s high schools.


Since joining Civic Consulting Alliance in 2005, Brian has forged city-wide collaborations that have invested, collectively, more than $100 million of pro bono services in the things that matter most in Chicago. Prior to Civic Consulting, Brian was Senior Vice President at National-Louis University, and before that Associate Principal at McKinsey & Company.  Prior to McKinsey, Brian was was Associate Professor at the University of Arizona, where he was part of the leadership team that built a new department of Materials Science and Engineering.  Brian received his B.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and lives in Chicago with his wife and 3 children.


An Englewood Rising: What Code for America Means for Chicago


This week marks the annual Code for America Summit. The Summit is THE event that convenes and celebrates the nation’s civic technology ecosystem. I chose the word “convenes” deliberately, because civic technology itself is about convening city stakeholders. The summit will showcase where citizens have partnered with their governments to take an active role in their communities, largely through technology.

Chicago is well represented on the list of summit speakers. Among the speakers and panelists will be: Tom Schenk, the City of Chicago’s Chief Data Officer who will talk about what a government should do once they open their data; Brett Goldstein, who was the City’s CIO, and is a national luminary in this space, talking about decision making with open data; and Chris Whitaker, our regional Code for America lead, who will talk about civic organizing.

At the summit, a story from Chicago will be told that I find to be the most representative of what the best of civic technology can bring to a community. That story is the one of It is a story of a community organizer (Demond Drummer), and a company that builds civic technology (DataMade) working with the city and neighborhood organizations to creatively address vacant spaces.   To understand LargeLots, one first has to understand the history of the Englewood neighborhood.

In the 1950’s, when my mother went to school there, Englewood was a thriving neighborhood. Its population was 4 times what it is today. 63rd and Halsted was the single largest non-downtown retail district in the country. Like any neighborhood, it had its problems. But there was no question that this neighborhood had a great deal to attract businesses, visitors, and residents.

In the late ’60s, white flight, bank divestment, and race riots completely destabilized the neighborhood. April 4, 1968 marked a major turning point when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led to civil unrest, which led to businesses to shut down, never to re-open. In more recent times, the area has lost 25% of its population since the year 2000, leaving behind numerous vacant buildings and spaces, which leave it vulnerable to plight. Englewood, it seems, was in dire need of a stabilization plan.

However wounded, the city has not given up on Englewood. More specifically, residents of Englewood have not given up. This is where our quintessential example of civic technology comes into play. The City of Chicago put together a Large Lots program and implemented it first in Englewood. This is an innovative housing land use program that allows residents who live within a 1 block radius of a vacant lot to purchase that lot for $1.

The ultimate goals of the program are to:

  • Give local residents greater control over vacant land in their neighborhood
  • Dispose of some of the City-owned land in the neighborhoods efficiently (which returns the land to the tax rolls)
  • Create wealth in the community by allowing owners to sell land after five years
  • Increase safety, build community, and raise home values by creating more neighborhood-level investment

In other words, the City partners with residents who are committed to the neighborhood to build a better place and create opportunity.   What is missing in this formula is an easy way to identify and purchase the lots.

Enter civic tech. Demond Drummer at Teamwork Englewood partnered with Derek Eder at civic tech company DataMade. With funding from LISC Chicago (with support from the Boeing and the Knight Foundation), they built to facilitate moving vacant land into the hands of property owners.

Rather than fighting through multiple zoning maps, working through two levels of government, and working their way through multiple processes, residents can go to a single sight and easily see the lots available, parcels that are for sale, and details on the lot, using data combined from the county and city. From there, it is a simple process to create and even track the application. They took all the steps that at one point lived in multiple PDFs and put it into 4 simple steps.

The results are stunning. In fact, they even stunned the creators, Eder and Drummer. They had expected, in their first go-around, 100 applications. They had received over 500 applications in 30 days. The year prior, there were 35 lots transferred for the entire city over the full year. More importantly, those who participated in LargeLots were those vested in Englewood. Those who believed in an Englewood rising. I can’t think of a better example to represent civic tech in Chicago at the Code for America summit.



To give back to the local education/youth community in Chicago, Microsoft is running a “WIN ONE/GIVE ONE” Xbox One Twitter Giveaway on Friday, September 19th! The winner will receive one Xbox One for himself/herself and one for the Chicago school, nonprofit, or charity of their choice. Some suggestions are listed below.

Rules: The tweet will go out at 10am on Friday. To enter, you must retweet our giveaway tweet and follow @MSFTChicago between 10am and 5pm. The winner will be announced via @MSFTChicago at 5pm!

Here are some suggestions for the donation to choose from:

Good luck and thank you for supporting these great causes!

Microsoft YouthSpark’s TEALS Program Expands to Chicago


Today, September 10th, marks two years since the launch of Microsoft Youthspark, our company-wide initiative to create opportunities for millions of youth through more than 30 programs and partnerships with more than 350 youth-serving nonprofits, in 100+ countries around the world.

And we have some exciting news: Youthspark’s TEALS program (Technology Education And Literacy in Schools) is expanding. And it’s expanding right here in Chicago: with the first-ever TEALS school in Illinois: DePaul College Prep, part of the Archdiocese of Chicago!

DePaul College Prep (formerly Gordon Technical High School) was founded in 1952 at the request of Cardinal Samuel Stritch, who envisioned a new type of Catholic high school that included a technical curriculum—one that prepared students for college.

We at Microsoft Chicago are excited to lead the effort to bring the TEALS program to our beloved city. There are a bunch of resources out there online for learning digital literacy, such as Codecademy,, and more—the problem is, not every student has access to high-speed Internet connections and laptops at home. TEALS brings STEM education to them at school. Volunteer software engineers actually go into high school classrooms to teach computer-science concepts to participating students and their teacher—who will eventually take over the course—in the mornings before their day jobs.

In addition to the TEALS program at DePaul College Prep, the Microsoft stores in Illinois will be offering free fieldtrips throughout the school year that teach kids (ages 8-13) everything from coding to digital presentation creation.

The Microsoft Chicago team is always supporting STEM education initiatives—programs that channel students’ passion and ambition in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and our Technology and Civic Engagement department in Chicago will help direct these students to jobs in their field.

There are more than 2.3 million entry-level jobs in STEM fields open to graduates right now. Join us in expanding initiatives like TEALS. Let’s get kids on their way to fill them.

For more information on TEALS programs in other cities, both globally and in the United States, visit the Official Microsoft Blog.

The Bunker – Chicago’s Home for Veteran Entrepreneurs

It is a mistake to describe 1871 as a startup incubator. It is much more than that. Aside from being an accelerator, it is a clubhouse, an education facility, a meet up space, and…an incubator of incubators. Case in point, “The Bunker”. The Bunker is a technology incubator housed in 1871, focused on veterans-operated, veteran-focused startups. It is one of several focused accelerators planned for 1871.

The concept of these “vet-tech” businesses is brilliant because they make simple sense. Startups (and businesses of all types) need strong, creative leadership. Not only do veterans come with that leadership built in, they come with the ethos and experience that combines creativity and hard work into the mix.

In fact, The Bunker itself is run by such a leader. CEO Todd Connor is an Operation Iraqi Freedom Navy veteran, where he served aboard the USS BUNKER HILL. He is also a successful entrepreneur who recently led the city of Chicago’s military high schools program. “Great start-up businesses need great leaders who know how to ‘get it done’ amidst uncertain and challenging circumstances,” Connor tells us. “This is what veterans bring.” While you can occasionally catch him slipping into the vernacular of the military, within minutes of meeting him, you understand that he adds compassion and empathy to the valuable list of leadership attributes. And that mix is what will make The Bunker an important differentiator for Chicago’s startup scene.

Jaime Velez is a friend of mine and is the CEO & Founder of WebForce1 Corp. This was one of The Bunker’s first residents in the first cohort. He described the need for such an organization this way: “Not every veteran wants to transition to an employee role upon separation from active duty, and most are already built as entrepreneurs. We see problems, we take charge, and we don’t rest until the mission is completed. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about and that’s what we do”. He adds “I am honored to become part of the first cohort class of this outstanding community that shall serve as a model for many more to come”.

Microsoft shares Jaime’s and Todd’s view that vets helping vets build successful businesses is a powerful formula. Just ask Microsoft’s own Vice President of Military Affairs, Chris Cortez. A 33 year Marine and Commanding General himself, Cortez has said that “regardless of your profession, someone with experience within an organization should spend time with a person with less experience and help them through the learning process”. Cortez notes that vets bring specific applicable skills – which include teamwork, drive, determination and intelligence – to business. The Bunker will tap directly into those skills to give Chicago one more way to fuel our entrepreneurial engine.