On a balmy February Sunday, the Second City Sommeliers, a group of expert wine service professionals, transformed West Loop’s City Winery into a sommelier’s training ground. In one corner, tables hosted wines made from the same grapes grown in different regions, testing a sommelier’s ability to distinguish geographic influences. In another, a high-top table teetered with two dozen stemware glasses, each holding a pour of liquor for visual and olfactory inspection. Along the bar, two wines often confused with one another sat side-by-side for in-depth comparison.
Fifty young professionals milled about the cavernous bar, expertly swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting wine at each station. Many of them wore blazers affixed with pins indicating their advancement through the Court of Master Sommeliers, the standard bearing organization of wine service.
When Chicago startup showcase Technori invites entrepreneurs to present at its monthly showcase, the demographics of that group roughly match the demographics of Chicago: half men, half women, and a third minority. Technori’s February showcase, however, featured a different composition of founders: they were all African-American entrepreneurs.
On February 28, Technori hosted five African-American entrepreneurs in the Chase Bank Auditorium at 10 South Dearborn St. in Chicago. The founders pitched their business to a 300-person audience. The evening—which also featured a keynote address from Emile Cambry Jr., founder of tech innovation center Blue 1647, and an introduction to Shamari Walker, a high schooler from Hammond, Indiana, who developed his own software company—celebrated minority entrepreneurship on the last day of Black History Month.
Aspiring entrepreneur Jose Mendoza, 35, from Gurnee, Illinois, had only visited the Chicago tech hub 1871 on one other occasion before attending Wednesday night’s Hispanic Technology Showcase. At the end of the presentation, standing among the crowd packed into 1871’s Merchandise Mart auditorium, he said the pitches he’d heard surprised him.
“I didn’t even know there were so many tech people out there, especially Hispanics,” Mendoza said. “It’s inspiring to me because it lets me know [that] retail, construction are not all we have.”
Mendoza’s reaction is what Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Omar Duque had imagined when he first hatched the idea for the joint 1871 and IHCC Hispanic Tech Incubator, whose inaugural members shared their businesses with over 500 attendees that evening.
“This is an opportunity for us to show the larger Chicago community, and the larger tech community, that we’re here, that we’re doing this, we’re serious, there’s value in this space, and we want to continue to attract Latino entrepreneurs to be part of this program,” Duque said.
Theresa Johnson knew there was no way her son, Charles, committed the robbery and murder he’d been convicted of. Convincing others of his innocence, however, was another matter.
“Everybody would just close the door practically in my face,” Johnson said of her repeated attempts to obtain legal help for Charles, who, along with three other men, spent over 20 years in prison for a 1995 double murder and armed robbery they did not commit.
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx rewarded Johnson’s decades of persistence Wednesday morning when she dismissed all charges against Charles Johnson, Larod Styles, Lashawn Ezell and Troshawn McCoy after fingerprint evidence conclusively proved their innocence. McCoy, sentenced to 55 years in prison, is awaiting his release from the Illinois Department of Corrections.
The “Marquette Park 4,” as their attorneys call them, entered prison as teenagers and spent a collective 70 years behind bars.
On Wednesday afternoon, Johnson, Styles and Ezell appeared in a press conference at Kirkland & Ellis LLP’s Chicago office, alongside their legal teams and nearly two dozen family members, to discuss their cases.
The Marquette Park 4’s journey to exoneration began in 2008, when Steven Drizin of the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law received a letter from Charles Johnson. Johnson described giving a false confession to detective James Cassidy, a story that matched many other letters Drizin had received from inmates across the state.
A man who turns methane into diamonds, a woman who brings patients to doctors’ appointments, and two Ph.D. students who deliver renewable energy to sub-Saharan Africa all walk into one of Chicago’s most iconic buildings and ask strangers for thousands of dollars.
No, this isn’t the start of a joke. This group of assorted entrepreneurs, unified by their common aim to solve society’s pressing problems, came together with their venture capital firms to pitch their ideas at the Impact Engine Community Showcase, held at tech hub 1871, in Merchandise Mart, on Tuesday night.
The evening, sponsored by Chicago-based venture fund Impact Engine, highlighted Chicago’s “impact investors,” which are venture funds that invest in businesses promising both social and economic return. Impact Engine invited five other funds to share their socially conscious missions and portfolio companies, alongside its own, with a standing-room-only, 250-person audience of potential investors and fellow entrepreneurs.
As Impact Engine CEO Jessica Droste Yagan introduced the evening of presentations and pitches, she drew attention to the important role impact investing plays in building a better world.
“Today, more than ever, we have to use every tool at our disposal to create the world we want to live in,” Yagan said. “Capitalism is one of those tools I believe is underused for this purpose. Whether you know it or not, or whether you like it or not, you do create impact with your dollars.”
In the hours following Donald Trump’s presidential victory, a disappointed Liz Radford scrolled through her Facebook feed and noticed posts floating the idea about a women’s march on Washington. Radford decided to gauge interest for a Chicago-based sister march within her own social network the weekend after the election.
“We put up a Facebook page on a Saturday morning, and by that night we had a thousand interested people,” she said.
That social media moment inspired her to begin planning the Women’s March on Chicago. Co-chair Radford and her fellow organizers relied on social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram to galvanize a grassroots effort that culminated in Saturday’s 250,000-person march.
“It’s social media’s own creature,” she said. “You have this tool available, and because you have that tool, that informed your thinking about how you’ll start implementing your idea.”
Radford, 45, said the initial overwhelming response speaks to the power of social media platforms that make it easy for people to get involved with causes they care about.
“You don’t have to leave your house, you don’t have to call anybody, you just log onto your computer,” she said. “It offers an instant community, and I think a lot of people need that right now.”