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Fascinating Faces

Chicago is making its presence known in the global digital world, thanks to some innovative business and civic leaders, tech geniuses and creative thinkers. Here, six fascinating locals—who have the potential to shape Chicago’s future—we will be watching in 2013.

Genevieve Thiers

Kevin Willer

Genevieve Thiers

The idea for Sittercity came to Thiers while she was in her dorm at Boston College and saw an expectant mother posting flyers for a nanny. “I sent her home, and as I was posting the flyers around campus, I thought, ‘Why doesn’t someone take the model of match.com and make it for parents and caregivers?’” Twelve years later, that idea is now the go-to online source for child-, pet-, home- and elder-care services. Though she’s still on the board, Thiers has stepped down as CEO of Sittercity, which has facilitated more than 1 million sitter matches to date. The growth rate is so rapid, Thiers predicts the site could go public in a few years. She’s watched Chicago’s digital scene evolve over the last few years, and during that time, she’s also co-founded ContactKarma, a social recommendation engine to help business owners find top-rated B2B products and services, and OperaModa, a company that showcases emerging artists in American operas. When she arrived in Chicago in 2002, there was not much of an entrepreneurial scene and only a few web companies. “There were a couple of us who would get together and have these founders club dinners. It was Sittercity, GrubHub, Groupon was the newcomer, Leapfrog and a few others, and we would go eat pizza somewhere. It was really small, and I was the only woman.” Though she’s enjoying Chicago’s growth as a tech hub, Thiers would still love to see more of a female presence in the digital community. “Everyone has a portfolio in their life of how many risks they’re willing to take, and women often take that risk portfolio and put it into family and children,” she says of women entering their 30s. “The immense amount of risk and time that startups take, it’s just not something a lot of women have when they also have a family. I feel like you can have it all, but with women, you can’t have it all at once.” Having launched Sittercity in her 20s, she’s now able to focus on her role as a mother to 1-year-old twins. So did she find her nanny on Sittercity? “Of course! It’s fantastic, a godsend.”

Kevin Willer

More than a decade ago, when Willer was opening Google’s Chicago office with his business partner John DiCola, the first few years were difficult as the new kid on the block, and he still remembers those who helped them network. “It was people like that helping us when we were a small company in Chicago—and the experience of having no community around us—that made me believe we needed something like this,” he says. “This” is 1871, a 50,000-square-foot hub for digital startups managed by the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs on their path to building high-growth, sustainable businesses. Willer, president and CEO of the CEC, says the co-working space inside The Merchandise Mart aims to move early-stage startups from coffee shops to a central location, where they can work side by side and learn from each other (no surprise it also houses an Intelligentsia). Of the 800 applications, a committee of nine successful entrepreneurs and technologists selected 200 digital startups to work in 1871—including recognizable names like CheekyChicago and A Better Chicago—in many different industries including financial services, marketing and travel. Members have access to seminars featuring guests like Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, and Dick Costolo, the CEO of Twitter, as well as monthly office hours with some of 1871’s 120 mentors. “Chicago is not always just going to be about the companies of the past. When [people] see Google buying Motorola, I think it freaks them out a little,” he says. “But the world is changing.” And he sees Chicago’s business and government leaders as ready to evolve. “When we’re thinking about job creation and economic development, it’s about creating new companies and new types of opportunities so that we don’t lose talent, and that we attract talent here.”

Nina Nashif

With 10-plus years of business experience creating entrepreneurial ventures around the world, Nashif says she’s known professionally for “making things happen.” Nashif joined Chicago-based Sandbox Industries, which creates, develops and invests in new businesses, as a managing director in 2010, and in January 2012, she founded Healthbox, an accelerator program that provides high-potential health care tech startups with the capital, expertise and global network needed to grow and develop. “For three months, these companies shared space and ideas in Chicago, where they developed their business models and products, created relationships throughout the industry and closed deals with new customers,” she says of the inaugural class of 10. One graduate, SwipeSense (co-founded by Northwestern grads), is already taking off. “They are tackling hand hygiene compliance in hospital settings by providing the staff with a portable, trackable hand sanitation device that dispenses alcohol gel with the swipe of a hand,” she says. Nashif envisions Healthbox becoming a global platform for health care entrepreneurs to positively impact the industry, and believes in accelerators as “economic engines” that create jobs and opportunity. “They are great platforms that provide seed capital and bring together a community of individuals to support aspiring entrepreneurs,” she says. “Entrepreneurs find them meaningful because they serve to validate their business ideas and provide smart capital to help them stay focused and grow much faster than if they were doing it on their own.”

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