Five years ago, I moved to New York City to pursue a dream deferred – becoming a writer. While in NYC, I discovered my inner entrepreneur via my snack food mix, Auntie Ronda’s. An entrepreneurial spirit is the life blood of NYC. It is the pulse and rhythm of the city that never sleeps. Although my background was in law, I did not know how to run a business. Fortunately, I found food incubators and resources for entrepreneurial startups located throughout all of the boroughs. These entrepreneurial centers provide free legal, tax, accounting, and marketing advice from professionals. I had someone walk me through drafting a business plan, competitive/marketing analysis and web design. When I moved back to Chicago in August, I was excited to be home. However, I was concerned whether I would find the resources to sustain my creative (writing) and entrepreneurial endeavors.
I felt like a stranger in my hometown. During my search to find mentors and resources, I came upon the Chicago Innovation Awards. Its mission is to “celebrate, educate, and connect innovators across all industries in the Chicago region.” Most of the companies seemed to be tech startups. I was skeptical, but intrigued by its Women’s Mentoring Co-op and the new addition of the Neighborhood Awards honoring organizations dedicated to innovations in Chicago neighborhoods.
Monday night, I attended Chicago Innovation Awards’ Innovators Connection sponsored by Molex. The mission of Innovators Connection is to connect Chicago startups, investors and Fortune 500 companies. Kristi Ross, a former CFO for a startup acquired by a Fortune 500 and a mentor for the Women’s Mentor Co-op, offered advice on what to expect after acquisition and how to maximize the strengths of the startup spirit with the resources of a large company. To facilitate networking, Innovators Connection utilized high tech and low tech tools. The low tech connector was a “Connection Wall” (aka vision board) where participants wrote what they were seeking (capital, talent, service).
For its high tech network tool, Innovators Connection utilized Bullseye Smart Badge by Proxfinity, a winner at the Chicago Innovation Awards 2016. Proxfinity is a “trademarked play on words that captures the company’s core concepts of connecting people based on proximity and affinity.” Proxfinity is poised to change the way trade shows, conferences, and corporations manage professional networking and internal corporate relations. Its Bullseye Smart Badge is an electronic visual badge pre-programmed with participants data (industry, trade, wants, needs, products – you pick how much). When a participant is within range of someone that meets their needs/wants, the badge lights up with initials and transmits data to each participant.
As co-founder Lisa Carrel explained, “The benefits are two-fold. First, participants get a better experience. Second, it provides insights for the organizer to tie event and meeting marketing and HR spends with revenue/dollars spent – is this worth the cost?” Although initially Proxfinity felt trade shows, expos, and networking fairs (job/college) would be a natural fit for the product, corporations have been its main client base. Corporations with multiple locations have found Proxfinity valuable in connecting employees who’ve only communicated via email at CEO summits, R&D events, or cross-departmental strategic planning and leadership meetings.
The Bullseye Smart Badge takes networking to the next level. I used my snack mix company to complete the survey for the badge. I was like a kid in a candy shop when my badge lit up with initials. Some people worried when they could not find their match. This had more to do with the venue location. We were in a restaurant with an open area and booths, some people were standing others sitting. However, we were reassured because connections’ contact information were going to be emailed to us. No missed connections. No cold calls. The connection is someone who actually has an affinity for my business. I was pleasantly surprised at how many people I met that I would have never met through traditional networking.
For Chicagoans who have an idea and do not know where to start, below are additional resources to make your idea a startup reality. Knowledge is power. Access is key.
UIC Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies
Chicago Urban League Entrepreneurship Center
Also published on Huffington Post.