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Solstice Mobile founder J Schwan mentors I.C. Stars to join Chicago tech community

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Updated: November 26, 2012 6:02AM

I walked into a hip River North loft building and was greeted by a young African-American man — probably in his early twenties.

“Mr. Schwan?” he asked. ‘My name is Malcolm. Would you mind if we talked before we sat down for tea?”

That’s how my experience with the not-for-profit program Inner-City Computer Stars began. Since 1999, i.c.stars has been identifying, training and jump-starting technology careers for Chicago-area low-income young adults who demonstrate extraordinary potential for success.

The program puts talented young adults through three-month technology boot camps, while partnering with Chicago tech firms to provide real-world experience.

Chicago has been great to the technology community. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of Chicago tech employees has grown 14.4 percent. Yet, throughout, I’ve seen a large section of our city’s population left behind by the tech industry.

That’s why I was at i.c.stars that day — to sit down for my first high tea, hosted every day at 4 p.m., and talk to those in that left-behind group about jobs in tech.

Malcolm led me to a large, round table where a diverse group of 12 other young men and women were seated, all dressed in business formal clothes. The “stars” went around the table introducing not themselves, but the person seated to their right — a formal Japanese custom I later learned helps move the energy around the table. As the stars introduced one another, I realized how sorely tech in Chicago was missing talent like this. Part of being competitive in a global market is employing a diversity of strategies, opinions and people. Here, Chicago was failing.

The non-profit’s specific mission is to create 1,000 technology leaders by 2020, and it is well on its way. The average income of incoming students is $9,000 per year; the average initial income of graduates of the program is $31,000, with a 95 percent job placement rate.

I first discovered the program after unknowingly hiring one of their graduates. His name is Marcus and he remains one of the most talented developers I’ve ever met.

As tech leaders, we have a responsibility to find more developers like Marcus — people with raw talent who never got their chance. Maybe they didn’t have a co-signer necessary for student loans to attend college, or maybe a family crisis postponed their education. The reasons are irrelevant, but what is relevant is that this organization has refined one small way to find hidden talent in all our neighborhoods.

Our latest project with i.c.stars is a partnership with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to build a state-sponsored mobile app to connect job seekers with government jobs. The project team is made up of people from my company, Solstice Mobile, and i.c.stars alums. It’s a very talented and diverse group. It’s awesome watching them work together and hone their skills, while building a tool that will ultimately help others find employment.

J Schwan donated his fee for writing this column to i.c.stars.

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