By Clemente Nicado, Publisher & Editor in Chief
When Howard Tullman officially took the reins in January 2014 of Chicago technology startup incubator 1871, it was clear that the new CEO would be an agent of change.
The 69-year-old entrepreneur and turnaround expert instilled a new focus on revenue over sheer investor dollars, as well as a more rigorous selection process for accepting tenants into the program.
He’s also pushing for more diversity at 1871, the Merchandise Mart facility that houses some 240 startup businesses, along with accelerator programs TechStars and ImpactEngine. Fledgling tech companies pay $125 to $400 a month for space on month-to-month leases.
“We have a number of programs where our sponsors are allocating portions of their contributions to provide scholarships and other outreach programs, so we’re setting aside funds in order to attract more minority candidates,” Tullman says.
In February, 1871 announced that it will host an Entrepreneur in Residence for one year as part of CODE2040’s residency program. CODE2040 is a national nonprofit group that works to create pathways to educational, professional, and entrepreneurial success in technology for underrepresented minorities. With a focus on African-Americans and Latinos, CODE2040 seeks to ensure that by the year 2040 – when the Unites States’ minority population is expected to outnumber Caucasians – African-Americans and Latinos are proportionally represented in America’s innovation economy.
Google for Entrepreneurs is funding the program, which will award each selected entrepreneur $40,000 in seed capital without asking for equity in return. Tullman says CODE2040 will manage the application process, while 1871 will provide workspace and facilities for a year. The program seeks minority entrepreneurs who themselves have proven to be champions of racial or gender diversity.
“The goal is to identify entrepreneurs and get them additional support so that they can really become part of the tech infrastructure,” Tullman says.
Tullman says he’s also collaborating with the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Wintrust Bank to develop new diversity initiatives. Beyond promoting diversity within its own program, 1871 also is expanding its community outreach efforts, particularly in the schools and colleges.
“We’re working with the Chicago Urban League to push out some technology initiatives along with the YWCA to the Chicago Public Schools, so that will be another way of getting more diverse populations served by technology,” Tullman says. “At the same time, we are trying to develop a stream of young people with an interest in science and technology. We want them to understand that 1871 is a welcoming place, a place full of opportunities. And not just for people who want to have their own business – you can come in here and work for any number of companies. They’re all looking for hard-working, diligent employees.”
Tullman says 1871 is uniquely positioned to promote diversity because it is so closely tied to the business, academic, and finance communities.
“We have access to the universities, the corporations, the venture capitalists, the mentors, and the schools and educational programs,” he says. “There are no other places like this that have all that under one roof.”
Many consider 1871 to be the hub of technology in Chicago, and Tullman – as its top executive – a key ambassador for Chicago’s role in the new digital economy. Late last year, on the heels of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 announcement of Chicago’s Global Cities Economic Partnership with Mexico City, Tullman visited Mexico City. While there, he joined with Startup Mexico CEO Marcus Dantus to announce a partnership between the two groups, as well as other efforts to foster U.S./Mexico cooperation in the technology industry. Among the goals, Tullman says, is helping Mexico overcome its image problem.
“When I was down there last, one of the things that they denounced was that there was only one venture fund in Mexico,” Tullman says. “And within just a few years there are 10 or 20 firms and a lot of startups and activity. So it has really changed significantly now, and we have to change the world’s perceptions to go along with that reality.”