Microsoft MVPs in Chicago: Improving the City’s Public Services through Technology

As the Community Program Manager for Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professionals (MVP) Program based in Chicago, I have the immense privilege of working with the area’s most impactful and influential technology and community leaders.

What is the MVP Award?

The Microsoft MVP Award is Microsoft’s way of saying “Thanks!” to outstanding community leaders throughout the world. The contributions MVPs make to the community, ranging from speaking engagements, to writing books, to helping others in online communities and forums, have incredible wide-sweeping impact. The MVP Award program began over 20 years, and today we have over 4,000 technical experts and community leaders across 90 countries. To show our appreciation, MVPs receive early access to Microsoft products, direct communication channels with our product teams, and are invited to the Global MVP Summit, an exclusive annual event hosted in our global HQ in Redmond. They also have a very close relationship with the local Microsoft teams in their area, who are there to support and empower MVPs to address needs and opportunities in the local ecosystem. MVPs are awarded for their contributions in several different areas including development, IT pro, and Office technologies.

Who are the MVPs?

Microsoft’s MVPs are technology experts who passionately share their knowledge with the community. They are always on the “bleeding edge” and have an unstoppable urge to get their hands on new, exciting technologies. They have very deep knowledge of Microsoft products and services, while also being able to bring together diverse platforms, products and solutions, to solve real world problems. MVPs are driven by their passion, community spirit and their quest for knowledge. Above all and in addition to their amazing technical abilities, MVPs are always willing to help others – that’s what sets them apart.

MVPs in Chicago

There are currently eight Microsoft MVPs who reside in the City of Chicago and 41 based in the state of Illinois. Our MVPs empower others with technology on a daily basis – in both their “day jobs” as well as in their free time through community contributions. One Chicago based MVP, Juan Soto, leveraged his technology and community leadership skills to help the Chicago Police Department (CPD).

How a Chicago Based MVP Used Technology to Help CPD

Juan Soto

Juan Soto, Chicago resident and Access MVP, has been a Microsoft MVP for the past 6 years. Juan is the president of IT Impact, Inc., a Microsoft partner and minority owned Software Company specializing in custom software solutions. A Chicago based law firm, responsible for modernizing CPD’s forfeiture tracking systems, enlisted Juan’s help in modernizing the database used by the Chicago Police Department to keep track of confiscated items. CPD’s IT department did not have the internal resources to update the existing Access application, so they called on Juan for assistance.

Juan and his team upgraded the existing Access database to SQL Server 2016 Express edition, added code to update the software automatically when a new version is available, trained 12 of Chicago’s finest police officers on how to maximize the use of Microsoft Access, and redesigned some of the interface to make it easier to find records.

The new updates were a big hit. The Access training Juan provided helped increase productivity – allowing improved response times on the phone with the owners of the asset.

Juan’s team is now planning a second phase of improvements including overhauling the user interface, and adding an additional Paradox database to the new Access + SQL Server system. This impactful project echoes Juan’s customer focused motto: “Discover the power of your data!” with Microsoft Access and SQL Server.

Lisa Anderson

I am extremely proud and humbled by the everyday actions of our Microsoft MVPs who help empower others through technology. As a Chicago resident myself, it is incredible to see how Juan’s work impacts our community. Thank you to Juan and all the MVPs who are creating positive change.

If you are interested in learning more about the Microsoft MVP program and how to be nominated, you can visit our website at https://mvp.microsoft.com/en-us/.

Lisa Anderson is the Community Program Manager responsible for leading Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professionals (MVP) Program in the Central United States. She is based in Chicago, and has been working at Microsoft Chicago for four out of her nearly five years with the company. You can find Lisa on Twitter, LinkedIn, and on her website.

Big Shoulders: Charles Adler, Founder at the Center for Lost Arts

Meet Charles Adler. Charles has a storied history of enabling creatives to pursue their passions. In co-founding Kickstarter, Charles enabled creatives gain access to the capital required to turn those passions into businesses and real assets. The birth of Kickstarter was a watershed moment in the history of funding.

Wanting to do more for this group, he has now created a physical space for creatives in Chicago called Lost Arts. Located on Goose Island, it is really four physical spaces: a design studio, prototyping lab, workshop and an event space. Charles has gone from something very global (Kickstarter) to something very local. However, two ventures aren’t quite as different as they at first seem. After all, this is no ordinary “maker space.”

Billed as part lab, part workshop, part atelier, part incubator, part school and part playground, it provides access to the tools that you would expect to see (3D printers, soldering irons, sewing machines, etc.). But that is not what makes Lost Arts special. The secret sauce is the way it empowers creatives with access to “community and, by virtue of the community, knowledge.” How did he discover that this community was required and that it would lead to knowledge? He opened the space, invited some friends, and… he watched.

See what happened next in this interview with Charles, my latest segment of Big Shoulders, on Advisor.tv:

Celebrating World Water Day 2017

Water makes the world go ’round — but what happens to it on a day-to-day basis?

At this point, we are all aware that water conservation is an urgent need. Only 1 percent of the planet’s water supply is fresh water, and much of that is used for production purposes. Between 2000 and 2050, manufacturing is expected to increase its use of fresh water by 400 percent.

So how can we incorporate water conservation into our growing need to use more water?

Tech companies are using data to find the answers — Microsoft has partnered with Ecolab and Trucost to prioritize resourcefulness and sustainability through data analysis and smart financial modeling. Together, we’ve launched the Water Risk Monetizer in New York City, a water risk analysis and financial modeling tool that translates water scarcity risks into financial terms, and enables businesses to factor current and future water risks into decision making.

Through the dedication of growing technologies like IoT, machine learning, and other cloud-based technologies, we’re hoping to inspire others to use tech to minimize environmental impact and help us in our commitment to sustainability and environmental awareness.

Recently, our own Adam Hecktman joined West Monroe Partners to explore water quality and scarcity, as well as the impact industrialization has had on water conservation. As our supply of clean drinking water continues to dramatically diminish, our industry has a responsibility to seek solutions to water problems. Organizations like City Digital and Opti use smart sensors to address these issues, and we’re looking forward to learning about other projects at today’s World Water Day Summit.

Read Adam’s blog with West Monroe Partners here.

Read more about the Water Risk Monetizer on the Microsoft Green Blog.

Civic Chat — Networking Our Neighborhoods: Ricardo Estrada, President and CEO, Metropolitan Family Services

Since 1857, Metropolitan Family Services (MFS) has been the engine of change that empowers Chicago-area families to reach their greatest potential and positively impact their communities. MFS empowers families to learn, earn, heal and thrive. The nonprofit’s 900 employees (and another 900 volunteers) help 72,000 people yearly — 81 percent of which belong to the working poor or lower-middle class.

In Shelley Stern Grach’s latest Civic Chat: Networking Our Neighborhoods, she sits down Ricardo Estrada, President and CEO of MFS. He details the organization’s goals (the four Es): Education, Economic Stability, Emotional Wellness, and Empowerment.

Watch Shelley’s chat with Ricardo live on Advisor.tv.

A Letter to Dorri McWhorter (From Dorri McWhorter)

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month with our newest spotlight series. We’ve asked local women leaders to write a letter to their teenage and college-aged selves to recall a moment in time when they felt empowered by technology. Throughout the month of March, we’ll be spotlighting this series on our blog. We hope these stories uplift you and inspire you to #MakeWhatsNext.

Dear Dorri:

Being 17 years old is such an interesting time as you try to reconcile all that you know that you are to what people believe they want you to be! I’m so happy that you found the letter that you wrote when you were 11 years old. You know the one…your note to Santa. You wrote:

“Dear Santa, How are you? You’ll never believe what I want for X-mas. Just 3 simple things: 1) to make everyone alive today be ok; 2) To give me a little something like a picture of you to show people you are real. (if you have a picture with you now, please give me one) if possible; 3) This is a big one! What I want is for you to ask my parents if I could be there accountant for 1 month. It won’t cost them a thing! (well maybe a few $100.00s! ha-ha) I just know I could do it. They can trust me. I just know I can do it! Please ask them for me! If they say no. Please ask them to give me an explanation why or why not.  I could start January 1st, 1985. Please have them see me for more info. Thanks, Santa. Love your friend, Dorri McGee. PS I left you a sucker! Write back please.”

Wow, you were so naïve and hopeful then AND you still are!

Somehow you have managed to still hold on to the hope for a better world! I remember when you were a senior in high school and you were so involved in everything including cheerleading and Future Business Leader of America (FBLA). You were actually selected by your senior class as most likely to succeed and most school spirit (no, those things don’t typically go together)! You still work hard and play hard, but I know you are often misunderstood, as people think you’re way too nice and cheerful to have the deep reflective intellect you that you have. People actually think they are complimenting you when they say, “you don’t seem like an accountant,” when you just want them to appreciate all that you are!

I’m so glad that you were able to participate in the FBLA Work Program. Being able to spend half-days in a corporate finance department really solidified your love for business! I know you were so proud of the spreadsheets that you created for the finance team. You really took to all the computer applications that allowed you to do financial analysis but create graphs and charts. You were so proud and felt you really found a way to show how valuable you could be through your use of computers. You were even selected by your school to present at the annual Work Program luncheon your accomplishments! This was great as you were also selected to represent your school at Badger Girls State, where you participated in mock government and was elected State Treasurer! Not many other seventeen-year-olds at the time could reference your experience with computers!

I’m happy to say that you have been able to combine your business skills and desire to make the world a better place! You have recognized how valuable computer skills can be and have ensured that you support other youth to gain greater skills through your work at the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, including TechGYRLS, which aims to encourage girls in science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) and Developing Digital Diversity (3D), a program targeting STEAM and leadership training for boys and girls.

There is so much more to do and your experiences along the way have definitely prepared you! So go forth and show up boldly, my dear! I want you to always hold the words of author Marianne Williamson close to your heart. She says, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same” So with those words, Shine bright and dream bigger my darling!

With much love and appreciation,


Dorri McWhorter became the CEO of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago in March 2013. She has embarked upon a journey to transform the 140 year old social service agency to a 21st century social enterprise. Dorri is moving the agency into the digital age by re-launching the TechGYRLS program, which focuses on developing STEM awareness for girls ages 9 through 14 and introducing 3D: Developing Digital Diversity, which provides web and mobile application development training to adult women. Dorri was included in the inaugural list of “The Blue Network”, comprised of the top 100 innovators in Chicago, by Chicago Tribune’s Blue Sky Innovation.  In Spring of 2015, the YWCA launched its own e-commerce site, YShop.org, which provides carefully curated goods and services from businesses that support the mission of the YWCA.  In 2016, McWhorter was recognized by Good City Chicago receiving its Innovative Leader Award.

A proven leader in the corporate and social change sectors, Dorri prides herself on being a socially-conscious business leader throughout her career.

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 CLA.to 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.

Civic Chat — Networking Our Neighborhoods: Lauren Woods, Service Learning Coordinator, Chicago Public Schools

How do we get students to engage in service?

At Chicago Public Schools (CPS), high school students (freshman to senior year) are taking part in service learning that extends past the limitations of volunteerism. While a typical volunteer opportunity is standalone, students are taking part in long-term service relationships where they build relationships with local organizations and develop lasting commitments to service.

Shelley Stern Grach’s latest Civic Chat: Networking Our Neighborhoods spotlights CPS’ commitment to service learning with Lauren Woods, Service Learning Coordinator.

Watch Shelley’s chat with Lauren live on Advisor.tv.

A Letter to Michelle Larson (From Michelle Larson)

As part of Microsoft’s commitment to diversity and empowerment, we’re thrilled to celebrate Women’s History Month with our newest spotlight series. We’ve asked local women leaders to write a letter to their teenage and college-aged selves to recall a moment in time when they felt empowered by technology. Throughout the month of March, we’ll be spotlighting this series on our blog. We hope these stories uplift you and inspire you to #MakeWhatsNext.

A brief statement to my 20-something self

“Michelle, check your email.”

Reflections on a time I felt empowered by technology

Technology was never my thing. I grew up in Alaska, loving the outdoors, happy to bask in the natural beauty of pristine glaciers, majestic mountains and – my favorite – glistening northern lights.

I chose to go to college in Montana for two reasons; 1) not wanting to live in Fairbanks (think 50 below zero!) and 2) wanting to retain access to the rural, mountainous outdoors.  As a student, riding my bicycle ten miles to study on the banks of the Gallatin River was my idea of a perfect day. At the time, I didn’t own a computer, or a cell phone, and most had never heard of the Internet – including me.

No, I am not ancient.

Then, out of nowhere, ”Check your email,” he said.

Michelle and her husband.

This physics nerd I was dating kept talking about a great new tool the university had set up for each of us.

“Email? No thanks, I’m fine.”

Then, I overheard in the hallway that you could take a course to learn the language of a computer, and program the computer yourself.

“Sounds challenging and totally awesome,” this physics nerd said.

“Michelle, check your email.”

“No thanks, I’m fine.”

I enrolled in that programming course. “Hello, World!” changed my world.

“Michelle, check your email.”

Next, NASA asked the solar physics group in our department for help in utilizing a new public resource, called the Internet, to bring amazing satellite images and movies of the Sun into everyone’s home. “Sounds challenging and way cool. Sign me up!”

But first, I wanted to help people become familiar with the Sun and its motion in the sky. Using my new programming super powers – and a stack of excellent Nutshell books – I developed a website that taught anyone how to track the Sun to find true north, and then build a latitude-specific sundial to tell time. Within hours of putting my creation on the Internet, I heard from students in Australia; “Can you make a version for us in the Southern Hemisphere too?”

Hello, World! Indeed!

“Michelle, check your email.”

That moment, the moment I launched a sundial webpage and students on the other side of the planet responded, that was my technology-empowerment moment.

“Michelle, check your email.”

“Okay. What?! 800 new messages?”

That nerd boyfriend (now nerd husband) and his sneaky cohort of tech-savvy graduate student friends had been secretly sending me messages, every day, for months!

“I wonder if I’ll ever get this inbox down to zero?”

Michelle Larson discovered astronomy in her 20s, when she pointed a pair of binoculars at the Moon. The stunning details visible on its craggy surface were a complete surprise, and the experience left her eager to find out what other secrets the sky had to offer. Now, as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Michelle leads a talented team that helps people of all ages explore and discover our Universe.

Michelle enjoys making science approachable, often through connections to familiar, everyday items. Don’t be surprised if you end up speaking with her about rising cells of cream in your coffee, or her potato that looks like a comet. You may even find yourself exclaiming, like one young visitor did after looking through her telescope, “Hey! Saturn looks just like a Chevy symbol!”

Before joining the Adler in 2013, Michelle held positions in science education and administration at Utah State University, The Pennsylvania State University, the Montana Space Grant Consortium, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the University of California–Berkeley. She earned a PhD in physics from Montana State University, where she studied neutron stars and realized her passion for sharing science with the public. Michelle is a member of the American Astronomical Society and the American Physical Society; she also serves on several advisory boards.

Michelle lives just outside Chicago with her husband—who is also an astrophysicist—their daughter, and three cats.