IVCA Feature: University of Illinois ‘City Scholars’ Aims to Pair Students with Chicago’s Tech Scene

February 5, 2019

IVCA Feature: University of Illinois ‘City Scholars’ Aims to Pair Students with Chicago’s Tech Scene

The City Scholars program, which was launched last year by the Engineering School of the University of Illinois, is a new initiative to introduce the School’s students to the City of Chicago and the related tech sector. The advantage of this, of course, is to get outside talent to the city, where developing businesses and firms can show off the sophistication of the metropolis and the opportunities for those students to contribute to the scene right now, and possibly beyond.

The IVCA reached out to the Director of the City Scholars Program, Brenna Weiler Conway, to get a sense of the initiative, and to see where the IVCA could fit in contributing to its success.

IVCA: City Scholars is a brand new program which began in 2018. What are the origins of the idea, and what was the impetus to evolve the idea to the actual program? How did you implement the program in its first year?

Brenna Weiler Conway: University of Illinois Engineering graduates are fueling today’s top companies – but the city of Chicago could use more of them reinvesting their skills and building their careers within the city for the long term. City Scholars encourages our nationally renowned engineering students to build Chicago’s tech pipeline.

In 2017, as Dean of the College of Engineering, Andreas Cangellaris launched this innovative program to give students hands-on experience in their field, while staying on track to graduation, and learn what Chicago has to offer our talented graduates as a growing tech hub.

With support from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, ChicagoNEXT and Illinois Engineering alumni in Chicago, the first class of 37 students launched in Spring 2018. Sixteen Chicago tech companies and corporations welcomed interns into their office and created a behind-the-scenes experience highlighting Chicago’s civic and technology communities. Now the program has grown, serving 115 students and partnering with 25 companies to date.

IVCA: This is a program for U of I engineering students to take advantage of ... what type of student do you desire ideally to pursue the program, and what has the feedback been from the initial participants?

Conway: City Scholars is open to junior and senior undergraduate students majoring in computer science, computer engineering, and electrical engineering. The program is competitive and features top students who can balance living in Chicago, taking classes, and interning. We are looking for future leaders who want to have a role in Chicago’s tech ecosystem.

Student and company response to the program has been very positive in our first year. Out of our first two classes, 69% of students reported receiving an offer to work in Chicago following the program – either for an internship or full-time – and 69% of those students accepted offers and returned to Chicago. Some students have even chosen to repeat the program ... returning to Chicago for an additional semester with our new cohort.

IVCA: In your second year, how has the program evolved based on what you’ve learned so far about the student and city interaction, and what has been the most productive improvement?

Conway: City Scholars is an exciting opportunity to better prepare our students to lead, and also to guarantee that Chicago benefits from increased interactions with Illinois Engineering students, faculty and alumni. When students work alongside our company partners, they learn what Chicago has to offer through its diverse economy, thriving civic community and opportunities for lifelong learning. They see what makes Chicago an exciting destination for them after graduation, and reinvest their talent in our state.

IVCA: What is an example of a typical day or opportunity in the life of the student participating in the cohort, and what is an example of how they interact with a firm or incubator in Chicago?

Conway: City Scholars students work 20 hours each week at a Chicago tech company and maintain a full course load. Students keep up with online lectures after work during the week and attend in-person classes at the Discovery Partners Institute on their days off, including a course every Thursday in which they visit one of our company partners to learn more about the technologies they use, tour the office, and ask questions about the industry.

Outside of work we partner with alumni, civic and corporate leaders to showcase iconic Chicago places and people. For example, this February our students will take behind the scenes tours of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum, and attend a small group dinner hosted by Chicago angel investors. Partners such as tastytrade, Trustwave, and CCC Information Services have opened their doors to us for tours and tech talks.

IVCA: What has been the feedback from the incubators, firms and companies who have so far participated? How has their feedback both complimented and improved the program going forward?

Conway: Our founding company partners have been incredibly helpful in shaping City Scholars. Their feedback on our application process, class schedule, and their hiring needs have helped us grow the program. We’re working to integrate City Scholars into their existing summer internship and full-time hire cycles so it can truly be a pipeline for tech talent.

To date, 25 companies have partnered with City Scholars, and 18 of them have committed to two or more semesters. Perhaps most importantly, we’re working to lower the cost of our program to make it accessible for more of Chicago’s small and mid-sized tech companies.

IVCA: The membership of the Illinois Venture Capital Association includes many firms and supporting industries that could benefit from participation in the City Scholars program. What is the best way for them to become involved?

Conway: Right now we are looking for partners for our Fall 2019 program. Students are applying on campus through February 15th, so now is the best time to introduce them to your company as a potential internship placement. We are also looking for companies to connect with and enrich the experience of our current class. Any companies interested in hosting an intern or meeting our students can reach out to me at [email protected] or visit our website and get in touch.