The Story Behind Tech Month Chicago

As the Tech Month Chicago website launch draws closer, I’d like to share a few things about how this concept came about and the story behind the idea.

The idea for Tech Month Chicago emerged from a combination of my own career progression and things going on locally in Chicago. Ever since, the concept has rapidly grown from an idea into a group of people meaningfully executing its potential.

At the start of my professional journey twenty years ago I had no clue I would end up a tech professional. I was studying to become an artist and museum curator. My whole life was about creating, displaying, selling, and teaching art. Back then I spent a great deal of my time calling people to coordinate art events and make things happen. Friends of mine at the college where I was teaching design saw what I was doing and told me I could call people for a living in the business world and I could, maybe, they said, make some good money. Soon after that, a leg injury left me without a teaching job, and I needed work. Too klutzy to be a waitress in college, I had done a lot of part time telemarketing jobs and considered myself an energetic chatterbox on the phone, but it never occurred to me that it could be of value to anyone. When I realized the business world had a need for what I could do, I quickly found myself working at a tech start up. I enthusiastically stayed in the office late every night mastering how to use intricate, captivating software and got good at selling it. Now I am a polished industry professional and my career direction is with technology. It’s a path I never expected, but one I’m grateful to be on.

Melanie at a tech eventI entered the tech world armed with creative problem solving skills honed in design school, but felt like an outsider. Too often, I was always the only woman, the oldest person, the only person who didn’t go to business school, etc. I saw a lot of structural and ethical problems in some places where I worked because they lacked diversity, but felt powerless to do anything about it. My mind was busy selling software, but my heart was a busy making taking notes on how people were treated. Ultimately, the saying that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience is true for me. For as machine like as the tech industry can seem, we are– after all– human. As a spiritual being having a human experience, I wanted to make a difference in unfair situations I saw in the tech industry where people were excluded or made to feel like outsiders.

In the years to follow the press blew up about the lack of women and minorities in technology and it was like they were all telling my story. It turns out there were many tech industry professionals who felt like outsiders who had stories, backgrounds, and experiences similar to and also different from mine. I read their stories, listened, and saw a problem that needed a solution. As the issue of diversity in the technology industry heated up as a national conversation, I saw additional issues on a local level. Chicago, my home and city that I love, seemed to have a chip on its shoulder when it came to technology. Chicago isn’t Silicon Valley or New York, and it’s easy to get demotivated here because of that. Further, many tech industry related conferences happening in Chicago were geared only toward those already in the industry and didn’t include the city residents at large. My heart was still taking notes and looking for ways to address these topics.

Still a fan of the arts, for years I had paid careful attention to the city of Chicago’s involvement with Chicago Artist Month, a month long celebration of independently produced art events throughout the city that were promoted together in one big collective calendar. Chicago Artist Month is a successful cultural and civic initiative that has been going on for more than 20 years put on by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. I have always respected and admired how this organization considers, includes, and brings together diverse groups of people to celebrate and appreciate art. I thought to myself, what if there could be something similar for technology in Chicago? A month of events for technology where all groups and interests that comprise technology on a local level can be celebrated and the whole city can be included in appreciating technology, just like the Chicago Artist Month event appreciates the arts?

Initial conversations with friends and colleagues in both the tech industry and at the Department of Cultural Affairs were encouraging. The idea has gotten a ton of support from organizations like Blue 1647 and i.c. stars and Tech Month Chicago is now a 501C3 organization with its own identity and mission. We are a strong, growing group of concerned, passionate technology professionals who love Chicago and create cultural engagement to help elevate the local tech industry as a whole. We aim to facilitate and promote a month of independently produced technology events throughout Chicago in June 2016 and our goal is to do it every year thereafter. With love, compassion, and feeling we present this idea to the technology industry professionals of Chicago and to all Chicago residents.

Tech Month Chicago is going to make great things happen for our city, and in my next post I’ll spell out some specifics on what we’d like to do and how we’d like to do it. In future posts we will also have others share their personal stories as well. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy navigating our new site.