Shelley Stern Grach

director + community advocate

Shelley Stern Grach
Meet Shelley
They say that great work stems from a combination of passion and commitment, something that Shelley certainly possesses when it comes to her life and career. She currently serves on the boards of the Women’s Business Development Center, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Thrive Chicago, Year Up and LISC Chicago. At Microsoft Chicago, she’s the Director of Civic Engagement, working at the intersection of computing and community, promoting STEM programs and using Microsoft technology to spur growth in the community. So no matter if it's work, play, or giving back, Shelley always makes sure her drive and professionalism help her complete her life's goals.

Aligning Tomorrow’s Technology Today at Chicago Innovation Summit

Effectively applying technology to help tackle civic and societal challenge isn’t just a matter of matching capabilities with problems … It’s defining opportunities, integrating with human nature and organizational systems, and testing, maintaining, and evolving solutions. It takes collaboration, communications and partnerships to align technology innovations with society. On July 12, Chicago Innovation and the Chicago Public Library hosted a half day Innovation Summit and Tech Fair featuring “Tomorrow’s Technology Today” at the Harold Washington Library. Microsoft had the honor to participate in the afternoon Tech Fair and the full evening public event, which focused on Innovation and Digital Equity.

I shared the podium with two amazing people, Julie Friedman Steele, Chairman of the Board, World Future Society and Kris Hammond, Co-founder, Narrative ScienceTogether we addressed how society is (and should) be impacted by Innovation and the need for all citizens to have an equal voice and equal change to fully participate in the benefits of  the Future. Following are social media comments and photos, which I hope you will find enlightening.


Postcard from India: Breaking Through Barriers For People With Disabilities

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. With over 1 billion people with disabilities in the world, we’re passionate about ensuring that our products and services are designed for people of all abilities. We are committed to transparency, accountability, and inclusion in our products and our culture, and we are deeply inspired by the opportunity to work with others around the world to explore what’s possible. Read more about Microsoft’s commitment here. This discussion will focus on the remarkable Ruma Roka, and how her vision and leadership created the Noida deaf Society and its enduring impact on the Youth and adult with hearing disabilities in India.

There are about 60 million deaf people in India. They often face significant poverty, lack of medical facilities and lack basic communications skills. At times, the deaf in India are not viewed as trainable workers, when, in reality, they simply have a different mode of communicating with the rest of the world. All they need is a means to communicate and a supportive environment.

Ruma’s journey from homemaker to a champion of the deaf is incredible. In a country with limited resources for the underserved, Ruma has been an advocate and a pathfinder for improving rights and livelihood for the deaf. Facing big challenges like social stigma, lack of education (curriculum and facilities) and lack of government programs, she also faced her own biggest fear: the fear of failure. Ruma began her journey in 2004, and like many nonprofit founders, she was living comfortably but not satisfied with her personal direction and impact on her community. While watching TV, she saw a program on sign language and was fascinated by the use of hands as a means of communication. This is especially interesting as she had no deaf family members, and her leadership approach demonstrates her clear vision and passion for making a difference. She made the commitment and completed her sign-language course in 2004. This knowledge connected her to the deaf community and she realized the challenges facing the deaf in India: family communications options, education and the lack of workforce opportunities. As Ruma said, “My work is not a job, it’s a responsibility”.

She identified some of the key challenges for the deaf in India:

  • The need for social skills development in addition to basic communications skills
  • The need for job skills, including the ability to translate signing into more traditional communications like writing
  • The need to have free curriculum and a workforce strategy that ultimately will include job opportunities in banks, technology and retail

To address some of these issues, Ruma started the Noida Deaf Society (NDS) in 2005. She started out in her own home with just five students. She created visual training materials and ultimately created curriculum which includes computer training for her students. She worked with local content developers and created English Reading and Writing Communication/Indian Sign Language. Perhaps most importantly, as Ruma recruited and trained her students, the students became the teachers of the next generation of students. She found that the best teachers for the deaf are the deaf themselves. They bring the passion, the drive and the ownership and don’t view their role as a job, but a mission. This was a first — professional training for the deaf that was taught by teachers who were themselves hearing impaired. Through word of mouth, NDS now reaches 1,000 students every year and has expanded to 5 centers in Noida, Delhi, Jammu and Jaipur. Ruma has been decorated with many national awards and has delivered a TED Talk:

When you enter the Noida school, the first thing you notice, of course, are the children! The two story building is divided into several classes, which are simply separated by curtains–since all the classes are taught through sign language, it’s very quiet (except for the occasional laughter), so multiple classes for various age groups and skill sets can co-exist in a relatively small space. I was also struck by how young most of the teachers are—having recently been students themselves, they seem to relate very with their younger charges. NDS also focuses on teaching students about technology. There is a small computer center, where students learn computer skills and take courses for certification.

Future expansion of NDS includes, working with more schools from across India and expanding the current curriculum and teacher leadership geographically, and possibly a primary school for early childhood learning. Another area is focusing more on the social skills for students and increasing the students’ confidence. Ruma sees teachers as the “leaders of our children” and has created an environment to positively impact thousands of young people, providing them skills, self-assurance and an improved chance at economic success. Under Ruma’s leadership, Noida School for the Deaf has truly become a lighthouse for the deaf, and provides an inspiring story of hope, economic empowerment and leadership.

One Chicago Laying it all On the Table — #OnTheTable2017

On May 16, once again, thousands of Chicagoans held civic and community conversations while breaking bread with old friends and new. The Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table is an annual forum designed to elevate civic conversation, foster new relationships and inspire collaborative action across the region. I now officially declare the Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table program to be an official phenomenon.


[fəˈnäməˌnän, fəˈnäməˌnən]
phenomena (plural noun)

  • a remarkable person, thing, or event.

synonyms: marvel · sensation · wonder · prodigy · miracle · rarity · nonpareil ·

Microsoft was again honored to both host and attend several On the Table programs, each one focused on Civic Tech and Civic Engagement, with a different dialog and audience. We began the day by hosting a research readout and panel with mySociety addressing New findings: What We’ve Learned About Civic Tech in Cities. Specifically, mySociety has researched five case studies of civic tech projects deployed by U.S. cities in recent years and found implications for broader changes to service delivery. Nearly 50 attendees joined our table to hear more details from the study’s authors, as well as national leaders in municipal civic tech. Once the panel finished their remarks, the audience contributed their experience to an actionable conversation. We’d like to thank the following for traveling to Chicago to join our On the Table program:

  • Moderator, Emily Shaw, Senior Implementation Advisor at the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University
  • Richa Agarwal, Software developer, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and former Code for America fellow
  • Demond Drummer, CoderSpace
  • Rebecca Rumbul, Director of Research, mySociety

For more information on the mySociety’s research on Civic Tech in Cities, please see the complete research.

With a minor pause in the late morning, we then had the pleasure of hosting the ADA 25 Advancing Leadership Chicago team for a more intimate, roundtable discussion. This On the Table was also held at the Microsoft Technology Center and co-hosted by Steve Solomon of Exelon and Commissioner Karen Tamley. Our goal was to broaden the awareness about this cutting edge program that is building a network of leaders with disabilities and adding a new dimension of diversity to Chicago’s civic life: ADA 25 Advancing Leadership. ADA 25 Advancing Leadership is the first program of its kind in the nation designed specifically to ensure that Chicago’s vibrant civic and professional life fully includes leaders with disabilities. The continuous work of connecting its Members network with opportunities to serve as leaders is known as the Civic Connections Project. At our lunch, we brainstormed opportunities to connect our members into civic positions ranging from committees, task forces, associates boards, boards of directors and more.

To learn more about the program, I invite you to visit their website and watch this short video capturing the importance of this initiative through the lens of it participants.

If you are interested in learning more about ADA 25 Advancing Leadership on a regular basis, please join our Facebook pages.

Happy Monday to everyone! Last week, ADA 25 Advancing Leadership hosted an event to get feedback on recruiting for this…

Posted by ADA 25 Advancing Leadership on Monday, May 22, 2017

The final On the Table of this very busy day was hosted by Denise Linn and Sonja Marziano of Smart Chicago and Connect Chicago. Since the launch of On the Table, participants have indicated that equity and social inclusion were among the most frequent topics of discussion at the events they attended.

So, this year, organizers suggested that equity be part of these conversations. Because equity is at the heart of our collective work, The Hive Chicago Fund for Connected Learning, The Hive Chicago Learning Network and the Smart Chicago Collaborative joined together to host a “multi-table” event focusing on Digital Equity in Education. Youth Digital Equity is the social-justice goal of ensuring that all young people have equal access and opportunities to use technology tools, computers and the Internet as well as the knowledge and skills to use them effectively. The aim is to bring new and different voices to the table, while having a fun, easy conversation with great food! The evening event was held at Northeastern Center for College Access and Success at 770 North Halsted. What an amazing resource and facility! The space was overflowing and the organizers wildly exceeded their target.

Congratulations to the Chicago Community Trust for their inspirational On the Table Program that is now a phenomenon in the region. And a special thank you to mySociety, ADA 25 Advancing Leadership, the Hive Chicago Fund, the Hive Chicago Learning Network and the Smart Chicago Collaborative, for the great dedication and work you do every day to make Chicagoland a center for innovation, digital equity and collaboration.

#STEMChallenge Student Showcase Highlights Internet of Things

Microsoft has been partnering with the Illinois Science and Technology Institute (ISTI) for three years on the STEM Challenge, along with our Early College STEM School, Lake View High School. This year, we added Corliss High School as a second Early College STEM School and invited Corliss to participate in the Challenge as well. Instead of being twice the work, it was twice the fun, as we engaged additional Microsoft volunteers to partner with the teachers and the students. Our Challenge this year was to have the have the students learn about the Internet of Things (IoT) and figure out how IoT can be used to address social change, and improve the lives of people in Chicago.

Our two winning teams really addressed key issues facing society today:

  1. How do you keep Seniors safe, when they are living alone?
  2. How do you help prevent hypothermia for the homeless?

The Lake View High School team included Joshua Cruz And DaFina Jones, who developed the Handy Helping Cam. The students researched and identified issues that we all will face: As we age, it becomes harder for elders to deal with issues of security, memory, and mobility.

  • 59% seniors who are victims of violent crimes are victimized at or near their home. (Bureau of Justice)
  • In a recent poll of U.S. individuals 65 years old and older who take at least five different prescription drugs regularly, 57% of those polled admit that they forget to take their medications.
  • Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.

Using the Internet of Things, Joshua and DaFina designed a camera, screen and watch that accesses IoT to keep Seniors safe.

The Corliss High School team included Connie Stewart, Dejah Winfield, Quimya Latiker, Tilithia Strong, Jaquise Green, Eric Henderson. Since this was a new program for Corliss, we were thrilled to see so many students interested and engaged and truly appreciate the support of the Corliss faculty and teachers. The Corliss team developed a prototype of a SMART Hat for the homeless to wear, which measured temperature outside, body temperature and sent a notification over IoT to First Responders when temperature become dangerous. Their research included statistics on Homelessness, how the IoT Sensors work, and how complicated building a prototype can be.

  • There are 700 homeless people suffering hypothermia during  cold winters; have been 8 cold-related deaths in 2017
  • Sensors: Challenging to interconnect sensors
  • Azure Cloud: Sending and analyzing data; data-triggered response
  • Software: Windows 10 , Visual Studio, PuTTY
  • Coding:  Language compatibility (C#, C++, Python)
  • Prototype Building: Size of the Pi and sensors; sensor placement; too many wires

Corliss designed a high tech-low tech solution to this ongoing problem, using Azure and an everyday knit cap.

Congratulations to all the students who participated in the STEM Challenge, and a special thank you to the Microsoft volunteers who assisted both schools:

  • Frank Migacz
  • Raj Das
  • Kevin Lopez
  • Peter Walke
  • Liz Abunaw
  • Larry Kuhn
  • Lynne Frankel
  • Jay Lisota

We also wanted to say a special thank you to the dedicated teachers and faculty who assisted in the Challenge:

  • Christina Franklin and Ty Graham (Lake View HS)
  • Derek Atchison, Jamie Ballard, Phylydia Hudson, David Holland, Trenton Sapp  (Corliss HS)

The #STEMChallenge Showcase was held on April 27, 2017 at Motorola Mobility Auditorium at the Merchandise Mart. More than 350 students, faculty and corporate supporters and volunteers were in attendance and the student innovation was off the charts!  The ISTI had great press coverage, including two excellent TV segments: the Fox 32 morning show,which featured three student innovations from Abbvie, ADM and Motorola Solutions; and a NBC5 Making a Difference segment, which featured a student and mentor from Takeda and mentioned Microsoft and other corporate supporters. We’re also quite fond of ChicagoInno’s article recapping the event.

Following is a complete list of all the corporate supporters and their schools. Congratulations to everyone who participated and who is using technology to make the world a better place.

Takeda Pharmaceuticals Challenge

  • Evanston Township High School
  • Phoenix Military Academy
  • Solorio Academy High School
  • Prospect High School

Loyola University Chicago

  • Nicholas Senn High School

Northrop Grumman Challenge

  • Oak Park and River Forest High School
  • Palatine High School

Illinois State University Center for Renewable Energy

  • Washington Community High School
  • Downers Grove North High School
  • ITW David Speer Academy
  • Williamsfield High School

AbbVie Foundation Challenge

  • North Chicago Community High School

Motorola Mobility Challenge

  • Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep
  • Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center

Baxter Challenge

  • Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy
  • Lindblom Math & Science Academy `
  • Muchin College Prep

Microsoft Challenge

  • Lake View High School
  • Corliss High School

Motorola Solutions

  • Chicago Vocational Career Academy

State Farm Challenge

  • Normal West High School
  • Bloomington High School
  • Normal Community High School

Horizon Pharma Challenge

  • Highland Park High School

ADM Challenge

  • MacArthur High School
  • Eisenhower High School

Postcard from India: Do You Live Near Toxic Waste?

This is the second in a series of discussions about my recent trip to India with the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy. This article will focus on Environmental Sustainability and a remarkable NGO in India, which is working hard to bring information on toxins to the public domain. Microsoft has a deep commitment to environmental sustainability, for our planet, our utilization of energy, and for our legacy. Please read about our policy and programs at

via Time Magazine

Like many Chicagoans, I hadn’t thought too much about the disposal of toxic waste. My focus on Environmental Sustainability was usually focused on carbon footprint, ice caps melting, endangered animals and wondering how paying 7 cents for a plastic bag was really going to make a difference for my great-grandchildren. A few weeks ago, Time Magazine had a small article that caught my attention. Time Labs mapped all the 1,317 so-called Superfund sites—the most toxic locations in the US, as tracked by the federal government. The density of toxic waste centered around Illinois and my home state of Michigan really surprised me.

Then I spent an afternoon in Delhi, India with the remarkable Ravi Agarwal, Founder and Director of Toxics Link. Ravi is changing the urban waste management system in India by involving local communities and the informal sector of “waste pickers” in waste disposal. He also is a strong advocate for a cleaner materials policy in industry. His work crosses boundaries locally, nationally and internationally. Toxics Link is an environmental NGO dedicated to bringing toxics-related information into the public domain. They span the struggles at the grass roots levels as well as provide global information to the local levels in India. Their focus is on articulating the issues related to toxic waste.

Ravi Agarwal, Director at Toxics Link

Toxic Links addresses the areas of hazardous and medical waste management, as well as food safety. They work in “networks”, utilizing community outreach and education, coupled with policy analysis, research training and program development. Their goal is to create the right solutions, as driven by the needs of the people. Working both in Delhi and through the country, Toxic Links also acts as part of a coalition of NGOs. An acknowledged expert in hazardous, medical and municipal wastes, Toxic Links is now addressing the emerging issues of pesticides and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), as well as e-waste scenarios in major metropolitan areas in India. They have a nationwide network of over 5000 members.

When you hear Ravi speak, he is so gentle, erudite and has such as smile on his face, that you need to balance his demeanor with his leadership mantra: “If you don’t engage, you don’t change”. His team collaborates widely with academic institutions and they engage directly “on the ground” with stakeholders. They started out working with “waste pickers” often considered to be the lowest form of work in India. Today, they also focus on electronic waste and wrote the first report in 2003 from a developing country on this topic. Here are some of the accomplishments of Toxic Links:

  • Toxics Link Has Been Awarded the Research & Development Award 2016 for Its Outstanding Contribution in Lead Related Research.
  • Toxics Link has been organizing school awareness programs across india. Around 4,221 schools, 4,50,000 students and 13,000 teachers have been covered in 19 states.
  • “We are a group of people working together for environmental justice and freedom from toxins. We have taken it upon ourselves to collect and share information about the sources and dangers of poisons in our environment and bodies, as well as clean and sustainable alternatives for India and the rest of the world.”
  • They have even created games on e-waste to make the topic more fun for school children.

So, how can we relate the amazing work that Ravi and Toxic Links are doing to Environmental Sustainability in Chicago and the US? My perspective is that we can learn from Ravi’s leadership style and his relentless focus on pursuing and communicating the truth. As he said in our meeting:

“We come with a smile,

We come in peace,

We can wait,

We are firm and we don’t compromise”.

His team doesn’t see the environment as separate from social justice, as it’s often the poorest and most underprivileged among the Indian population that have the closet connection to toxic waste from a geographical (living) perspective. Ravi urged us to “mobilize our work at home to address the least empowered”. Because if you start there, your role as a leader becomes a position of humility, not power.

He sees systemic reform as the “north star goal”, but the reality is that he focuses on specific issues for the present, in order to actually change policy and make real improvements. He gave us the following advice as leaders to bring home to our work in Chicago:

  1. Be at the table every day!
  2. Be in the conversation every day!
  3. Commit to long term, persistent leadership, which hold the values and the culture of your organization.

As we spent considerable time discussing values, Ravi believes that “values are there because you hold onto them”. You will know when your work is respected, and it helps to provide your team members very clear responsibilities. Values are held in systems…the way you respect and reward people is a demonstration of your values. It’s probably not a surprise that Ravi is also an accomplished artist, as he believes Art helps you lead a team in several ways. It helps you look at things differently, look at nature and ecology and the planet with a sense of wonderment and respect. It is this lens of leadership, this focus on values, and the ability to wait and not compromise that are lessons we can bring home and use every day.

Postcard from India: An Array of Themes

This is the first in a series of blogs about my recent trip to India with the University of Chicago Civic Leadership Academy. It’s taken me some time  to simply digest everything that we saw and experienced, and to think through the “big themes” and how those themes either relate to Civic Engagement in Chicago. Today’s discussion will focus on the “Array of Themes” that India kindles and I’ll share a few early highlights of our visits so you can see the diversity of the country.

Future blogs will focus on a few of the inspiring leaders we visited, and how their leadership skills can be translated to the challenges here in Chicago.

Let’s start with a quote which graces the wall of the Microsoft Delhi office which I visited on my second to last day in India. We’ll talk more about the office at a later time, but I felt this was a great summary of the values of every leader and every place we visited:

In Sanskrit:
Vipadi dhairyam atha abhyudaye kshamaa sadasi vaakpatutaa yudhi vikramaha
Yashasi cha abhiratihi vyasanam shrutau prakriti siddham idam hi mahaatmanaam

In English :
Courage in trouble, forbearance in prosperity, eloquence in the assembly, valour in battle, eagerness in gaining fame, attention to the holy scriptures – all these are natural to great ones.

Over the course of the trip, several themes emerged and are summed up by a comment from Rashish Nanda, the Chief Executive Office of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, India: “India lives in many centuries at the same time”. How perfectly this helps describe the beauty, the cultural mash-up, the digitization of India living right next to extreme poverty. Each morning we started our program at the modern campus of the University of Chicago Center in Delhi. We met with noted senior executives and NGO leaders who fought for change and human rights.

Following are the themes that I observed during our visit:

  1. The scale of the challenges in India are massive. Delhi has nearly 20 million people and the scope of trying to impact that range of people is enormous. I found the leaders we met tackled their challenges “one person at a time”, always moving forward and the scope didn’t diminish their energy or optimism.
  2. Women’s rights are also a key issue and the mountain that the NGO female leaders climbed were clearly higher than for male NGO leaders. Which made the impact and the focus of the women we met with all the more impressive. We’ll hear more about Ruma Roka, Founder and Chief Executive, Noida Deaf Society in a future blog.
  3. Society itself is in a self-discovery process. It’s both evolving to catch up with the 21st Century and keeping true to its heritage and culture at the same time. Think about Chicago, “born” in 1837 and how we are building a global tech hub. Now think about Delhi: The Indian capital city of Delhi has a long history, and has been an important political center of India as the capital of several empires. Much of Delhi’s ancient history finds no record and this may be regarded as a lost period of its history. Extensive coverage of Delhi’s history begins with the onset of the Delhi Sultanate in the 12th century. Since then, Delhi has been the center of a succession of mighty empires and powerful kingdoms, making Delhi one of the longest serving Capitals and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.
  4. The sounds! The senses! The colors! The creative expression! India expresses its cultural heritage through dress, colors, spices, deep faith and horns honking. The call to worship, the vibrant colors literally everywhere and the constant collision of 21st Century traffic with people selling their wares as they have been sold for generations. The presence of TV screens at the magnificent Golden Temple is a great example.
  5. Leadership is everywhere in India. It’s with the mother who is changing her child’s life through sending her to the School for the Deaf. It’s with the engineers and scientists who focus on toxic waste and work tirelessly to change policies to improve the health of the country. It’s with the Foundation leaders who focus on preserving the green space and the heritage of Humayun’s Tomb through an urban renewal initiative, similar to the urban renewal in Bronzeville, Englewood or along 63rd Street.

The leaders we met with put the spark of human dignity back into people who had been defeated by life. They were faced with leading across boundaries (ethnic, caste, government/private sector). They faced challenges of public sectors everywhere: how do you motivate and energize bureaucracy? How do you battle corruption? How do you do urban planning in a geography that originally had 50,000 citizens and now has nearly 20 million people to house, feed, and educate. They face the challenges of managing multiple stakeholders (imagine the challenges of restoration, culture and funding for Humayun’s Tomb! But then again, Humayun managed to be buried with both of his wives….). The leaders we met with felt that community ownership was key to success (sound familiar, Chicago?). Leadership qualities include the ability to look deeper and create customized solutions, being nimble, being analytical and using data to evaluate success through pre and post assessment, and above all, being passionate.

In our next blog, we’ll learn more about the remarkable Noida Deaf Society and how one women literally brought children who had no education nor means of communication into a school, where those children are now the teachers.

Learning About Civic Leadership in India

We’ve written several articles about our partnership with the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy (CLA). The University launched the Civic Leadership Academy in 2015 to develop a pipeline of talented leaders to help nonprofits and city and county government agencies in Chicago thrive. The interdisciplinary leadership development program is a key component of a broad set of UChicago initiatives to foster leadership and strengthen capacity among individuals and organizations in Chicago. The Civic Leadership Academy was developed by the University’s Office of Civic Engagement in partnership with LISC Chicago and the Civic Consulting Alliance,with funding from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, and McCormick Foundation. The program is designed to develop a pipeline of talented leaders to help nonprofits and government agencies thrive.

In January 2017, the fellows began a rigorous six-month program that will teach essential leadership skills and provide the time and space to collaborate on a capstone project that addresses a practical challenge facing each fellow’s organization. In March, the fellows will travel to the University of Chicago Center in Delhi, India, for a weeklong global practicum. Upon completion of the program, fellows will receive a certificate in civic leadership from Chicago Harris. I’m thrilled to let you know that I’m going with them to India!

Our program in Delhi is being curated by Common Purpose, a leadership development organization that specialized in cross-boundary leadership, running programs in over 70 countries worldwide. Founded in 1989, over 4,000 people become Common Purpose Alumni every year. The program is designed to inspire and equip leaders to work “across boundaries”, thereby enabling them to solve complex problems in organizations and society. In India, Common Purpose connects with the Dishaa Venture, which expands, enriches and energizes relations between India and the UK; and through CSCLeaders-in partnership with HRH Duke of Edinburgh Study Commonwealth Study Conferences.

We’ll be spending five days in New Delhi, the capital of India. Along with its neighboring cities/suburbs, this has been given a special status of National Capital Region (NCR). Delhi’s population is about 18,686,902 in 2016. Delhi is a city that bridges two different worlds. Old Delhi, once the capital of Islamic India, is a labyrinth of narrow lanes lined with crumbling structures and formidable mosques. In contract, the city of New Delhi, created by the British Raj, is composed of spacious, tree-lined avenues and imposing government buildings. For about a millennium, Delhi has been the seat of power for several rulers and many empires. The city’s importance lies not just in its past and present glory, but also in its rich and diverse cultures. It’s sprinkled with dazzling architectural wonders, a strong performing arts scene, fabulous food and bustling markets. It also has the major challenges ….and innovations…of an extremely large urban city. Here are some of the issues we will be addressing and some of the organizations we will be visiting:

Advancing Goals with Limited Resources: How do you increase social innovation and achieve more with less?

  • We’ll be visiting Mobile Creches, Gurgaon Ki Awaaz Samudayik Radio and Dilli Haat

Navigating Social Barriers to build inclusive Leadership

  • We’ll be visiting Protsahan, Noida Deaf Society, Lemon Tree Hotels, Swechha and Goonj

Building Support to bring about Change

  • We’ll be visiting Centre for Equity Studies, Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Project, Humayun’s Tomb at Lodi Gardens as an example of community participation, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Leading Across Boundaries-what skills do Leaders need to work across perceived boundaries between the public, private and NGO sectors?

  • We’ll be visiting Toxic Links, CEQUIN (Centre for Equity and Inclusion)

And then we arrive at the US Embassy in New Delhi to meet Minister Counsellor Jeffrey Sexton for a discussion and dinner at Mr. Sexton’s residence.

So, what have I done to get ready?

  • First, bought two giant books on India and highlighter in hand, I’ve underlined and put sticky notes all over the books
  • Immunizations
  • Malaria medication, heavy DEET coverage, Cipro
  • Special Power adaptor
  • Visa
  • Appointment with the Microsoft India office-check and SO excited to meet Madhu and Ashu who have been so supportive

I’ll try to tweet “live from India” and will provide a recap of my observations when I return.

A look at Shelley’s trip to India so far:

Looking at Data through the Lens of Leadership

Most discussions of Data and Open Data tend to the technical side. . . how do you manipulate, massage and create an app for all that gloriously Open Data? Throngs of Data Scientists collaborate virtually, at MeetUps, or at conferences to debate, demonstrate and debunk technical approaches to digesting Data. (nice alliteration!) Recently, at the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy, we had the opportunity to look at Data from a different angle — the Leadership angle.

As our readers know from previous discussions, Microsoft has been a supporter and a great fan of the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy (CLA). Now in its third cohort, The Civic Leadership Academy provides training through a six month program and global practicum to emerging and high-potential leaders in nonprofit organizations and local government agencies within the City of Chicago and Cook County. Each year, Microsoft and local experts have had the opportunity to talk to the CLA participants about the importance of understanding the Civic Tech ecosystem, and how to utilize Civic Tech tools and resources to help improve the lives of citizens of Chicago and Cook County. This year, we took a difference approach and focused more on Data and its implications for a Leader.

We worked in partnership with Will Howell, Ph.D. and the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at Chicago Harris and a professor in the Department of Political Science and the College to design our topic: “How do leaders use data to communicate and present insights for key audiences in their efforts to advance their goals?” We invited Danielle DuMerer, Chief Technology Officer and First Deputy Commissioner of the City’s Department of Information Technology (DoIT)  and James Rudyk, Jr. who is the Executive Director of the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC), a community based organization located in the Belmont Cragin community. James was also in the first cohort of frame the discussion from both the Open Data and the “everyday user” perspective. We thought it would still be a good idea to share some tools that are available to leaders—especially tools that help communicate the insights gained from Data, so we invited Amy Schneider, a certified Microsoft Partner with Netrix, LLC, who provided a short demo on how to take “raw data” and move it into a “visualized resource for advancing goals”.

I began the discussion by introducing the Topic and introducing our panel, and included a very short discussion of the Chicagoland Civic Tech ecosystem and Data. Our focus was to help the CLA cohort learn how to present data to different audiences (city council, board of directors, employee base), how to communicate the data, learning from our panel what works/what doesn’t work. Amy then used a short demonstration of Power BI using data from the CTA and discussed “data as a tool of persuasion.”

She emphasized that there are a wide range of tools can help tell the story that is captured by the data. Amy’s presentation generated a lot of questions, many centered on how Leaders can identify what tools to use, and what personnel skills were needed to “run” the tools. Danielle walked the class through a structured process for accessing data, using and thinking about data as a management and leadership resource. She provided some great examples from the City and had outstanding knowledge about similar capabilities and resources at the County level. James “brought it all home” for the class by discussing his personal experiences as a leader of a nonprofit which had challenges with organizing its Data to serve its client base. Through partnerships with Microsoft and working with his staff, James was able to realize increased efficiency and better management of his client base.

Danielle Dumerer, Chicago CTO

The following were highlights of the very interactive discussion between the panel and the CLA participants:

  1. The role of the civic leader is primarily about leading a team and making solid leadership decisions, not the technical side of using data.
  2. Leaders can and should use data for: decisions, reaching your organization’s goals,  communicating the data (up/down/across/outside the organization), and  presenting data in different ways for different audiences
  3. Leaders should  use data to: drive home a point you want to make, counter an objection,  propel a project forward/get a funder to write a check/expand alliances to reach a common goal, etc.
  4. Data is a tool for persuasion, and for storytelling. Tools like Microsoft’s Power BI, allow you to easily make your data points more visually appealing to your audience. The ability to interact with the data using dynamic filters (i.e. changing date ranges, or showing a single data point within a grouping of points) allows you emphasize supporting data in real time as you tell your story.

Many thanks to our panelists and the terrific CLA participants. The questions continued past our scheduled time, which is a great indication of the high interest level in the topic. As the CLA cohort starts to prepare for their individual Capstone projects, we hope they will look at Data in a different light, and utilize data analysis to document and support their Capstone presentations.

How Ya Doin’ on Those New Year’s Resolutions?

February and March. Normally a time when we are totally through with winter. Bemoaning our waistlines and booking Caribbean cruises to get away.

Also a time when we look back at our New Year’s resolutions and regret paying that annual subscription at the gym we haven’t used, or staring at the organic cleanse bottles on the shelf, or regretting we haven’t stopped driving and texting.

Well, NOT ME!!!!! My 2017 New Year’s resolution was much more practical, fun and frankly, easy to stick with.

You might remember the story behind my New Year’s Resolution

When the Chicago Tribune’s Blue Sky Innovation reporter Kate MacArthur wanted to get New Year’s resolutions from local innovators, she reached out to me (!!) and I was more than happy to oblige, highlighting my desire to expand opportunity for youth through digital skills learning and to personally engage with youth who want to go deeper in STEM training:

My professional resolution for 2017 is to increase my focus on mentoring: This year we — and me personally — will be focusing on more personal leadership with the students as far as one-on-one mentoring, because that has huge impact, and expanding opportunity for all youth to have a chance to learn and succeed with digital skills.

I want to personally engage with those youth who are inspired and want to go deeper. And for those who have the desire, I’d like for them to be inspired to focus on personal innovation and economic development in their neighborhood. That could be through entrepreneurship, developing an app, leading and teaching coding. 

So how’s it going? Here’s what I found out: Seek and Ye Shall Find. Once I let it be known that I wanted to invest more of my time in mentoring, the calls started coming in. Here are three examples  of fabulous young ladies I’ve started mentoring in 2017. Each situation is a bit different. I hope that by sharing a bit of their stories, you will see how easy—and rewarding—it is to be a mentor.

Let’s start with Brittany. I met Brittany through the Chicago Innovation Awards, a terrific program established to make Chicago a recognized hub of innovation by igniting a new narrative for our region, strengthening its economic future and building the spirit of innovation throughout the community. The Chicago Innovation Awards’ Women Mentoring Co-op was created in 2016 when the Chicago Innovation Award’s team realized a need to recognize and provide resources to Chicago’s women in innovation year-round. The purpose of this program is to connect successful Chicago innovators with women who have a demonstrated interest in innovation, and want to grow their businesses and careers in the Chicago region through the support of a mentor. Since the program’s launch last year, the number of mentees accepted has more than doubled.

I was honored to be selected as a Mentor for the Chicago Innovation Awards’ Women Mentoring Co-op for 2017. Brittany and I were paired together based on her technical skills and her current role as a Senior Consultant with Clarity Partners LLC. Brittany also volunteers with Girls Who Code Club as a facilitator. What I was really impressed with is Brittany’s focus on social impact in Chicago:

“I want to give my largely middle-to-low class community on the Southwest Side of Chicago access to technology and help those with tech-startup ideas turn them into reality. To do this, I want to start a technology incubator on the Southwest Side.”

We had our first meeting in February and we discussed a wide range of areas to focus on, including connections for Brittany into nonprofit programs on the SW side of Chicago which will help her reach her personal vision, and the pluses and minuses of tech startups, resources for startups and who to talk to in that field.

My second Mentee is Michele. I was paired with Michele through my role on the Executive Committee of ADA25 Advancing Leadership program, which I have written about previously. The Advancing Leadership program is especially focused on making connections between People with Disabilities and the business community through the Civic Connections Project. The Civic Connections Project is designed to increase the number of leaders with disabilities serving on advisory committees, commissions, boards and other appointed positions in the Chicago region. Connecting ADA 25 Advancing Leadership Fellows to Chicago leaders as mentors directly supports Fellows’ leadership and Civic Connections plans.

Since mentoring is  a relatively new program at ADA25,  I am sharing with you some of the guidelines for Mentors, because I truly value the thoughtfulness and clarity of the process. I also really like that the responsibility is with the Mentee to organize the meetings and set the direction of the relationship.

Guidelines for Mentors

  • A minimum of three meetings are expected:
    • Introduction
    • Three- month check in
    • Twelve month follow up
  • Mentee will be asked to identify priorities for mentoring relationship – some may be professional, others related to civic engagement or content expertise, or both
  • Mentor and mentee should mutually agree on format, frequency and purpose of meetings
  • Mentee is responsible for initiating contact

Michele and I had met before briefly, so our first session was delightful and we quickly starting focusing on some key issues that are of importance to her. Most of our discussion was about how to think through her leadership role on ADA25 Advancing Leadership, and in the broader community. We discussed how to help other People with Disabilities articulate their experiences and concerns, as well as their desires in careers and their personal life. Our next session will likely focus on planning a roundtable event as part of the Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table program in May.

My third mentoring experience this year was with Bianca. Bianca is a senior at DePaul and I was connected to her by her professor, who is a former Microsoft executive (and who recruited me to my current role for which I am eternally grateful). Although she is still finishing her education, Bianca wants to launch her career as entrepreneur in Chicago. She is passionate about empowering girls and young women. She is a natural leader and gifted student. She intends to change the world and will probably do it. Having a 25-year-old daughter who is also passionate about living in Chicago and wants to change the world as well, this was like being “home”. When Bianca and I met, it was mostly focused on building a life in Chicago (the challenges, the opportunities and that things “mom” suggested she think about); and how to sort through her decision process of either working for someone or starting her own business. I gave Bianca several organizations and people to research (a homework assignment) and we will be connecting again soon to drill down a bit deeper on her next steps.

So, instead of a gym club membership or unrealistic weight loss programs, how about focusing your time this year on mentoring our next generation? It’s easy, rewarding and a terrific investment in the future of Chicago. Here are some suggestions if you want to find your own Brittany, Michele, or Bianca… or just tweet me @shelleystern and we’ll suggest some great organizations to connect you with:

  • ISTI Mentor Matching Engine (for online mentoring with Illinois high school students):

The Chicago Innovation Awards’ Women Mentoring Co-op was created in 2016 when the Chicago Innovation Award’s team realized a need to recognize and provide resources to Chicago’s women in innovation year-round. The purpose of this program is to connect successful Chicago innovators with women who have a demonstrated interest in innovation, and want to grow their businesses and careers in the Chicago region through the support of a mentor. Since the program’s launch last year, the number of mentees accepted has more than doubled.

Positive Community Impact Through World Business Chicago’s Fellowship Program

Chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, World Business Chicago (WBC) drives regional economic growth. WBC is a public-private, non-profit partnership that drives inclusive economic growth and job creation, supports business, and promotes Chicago as a leading global city. One key initiative is the WBC Fellowship Program, which engages community and business leaders to advance the Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs. The Fellowship Program offers an exclusive opportunity for mid-level executives to bring the plan to life. Following the goals and strategies of the plan, Fellows focus on implementation and management of the strategies.

The Fellowship Program is a fabulous way for companies to provide professional development for their employees, while positively impacting the City. From the Fellow perspective, the four-to-six month assignment provides the opportunity to gain a unique understanding of how the public sector works; gain experience working with influential stakeholders; and build lasting connections through the Fellowship Alumni Program.

Microsoft is honored to be a supporter of World Business Chicago and its programs and to have our Corporate VP Dan’l Lewin serving on the WBC Board of Directors. Through our local Technology and Civic Engagement programs, we work closely with WBC to advise on the Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs, the ChicagoNEXT program, ThinkChicago and the Chicago Venture Summit.

It was my pleasure to join the WBC Fellows on February 7th, for a Fellows Appreciation Breakfast. The purpose of the breakfast was to extend the Fellowship Alumni Program, and thank Fellows from various cohorts (or “waves”) and recognize the Fellows for their invaluable contributions to WBC and the City of Chicago. The hard work and partnership with the Fellows has directly helped the economy of Chicago grow. As WBC President & CEO Jeff Malehorn pointed out, a key differentiating factor is that WBC has evolved its mission statement to include the term “inclusive growth”, because inclusion of marginalized communities and populations, of all types of workers and all types of companies, is a priority for WBC and the City of Chicago.

To bring “inclusive growth” to life for the Fellows, WBC hosted a panel of City, nonprofit and business leaders to share perspectives on the import issue of inclusive growth and how it drives economic growth across the board.

The panel included:

Each panelist described what inclusive growth meant to the City. Shari discussed how the Chicago Urban League is working with the private sector to promote economic growth that focuses on all neighborhoods. Both Andy and Steve shared the challenging discussions and debate that is part of “getting deep” into our neighborhoods to improve economic growth that is inclusive and to find the right community partners and programs that drive change. I discussed how technology and digital access and 21st century skills are crucial to economic development and how Chicago—while a leader nationally—still has some work to do to provide access and skills to all. We also discussed how the civic tech ecosystem is thriving in Chicago and shared some stories on how Open Data in the City provides opportunities for all citizens to participate and use the City’s resources.

The lessons learned from our discussion are:

  • Inclusive economic growth means making decisions and setting priorities such that economic growth reached marginalized populations and communities.
  • Efforts to grow the local economy inclusively probably will not produce a series of quick wins. This is hard work.
  • Patience is required because economic development often requires rethinking systems and reprioritizing long-term outcomes.
  • Steadfast effort and innovation are required along with the focus on inclusive growth.
  • Inclusive economic growth is about both breadth and depth of impact.

Congratulations and THANK YOU to all the Fellows from World Business Chicago. Your dedication of time and talent is making the City of Chicago stronger and healthier.

For more information about applying to the Chicago Economic Growth Fellowship Program, please contact the Manager of Strategic Corporate Partnerships, Ben Berlin at or visit: