“Life-changing” is how I describe my experience in Chicago, where I spent a month as a fellow with WorldChicago’s Tech Innovation, Education, & Entrepreneurship Fellowship Program.
It was my first time in the United States, and I am still having a hard time comprehending the urban bustle, skyscrapers and variety of people.
What was strange and frightening at first, became exciting and encouraging after the first week. With each day in Chicago, I was learning from new acquaintances and experiences. By the end of my visit, I was almost used to the rush of life in Chicago, its culture, and daily happenings.
The goal of the program is for the fellows to sample best practices in technology innovation, entrepreneurship and education in an effective urban tech ecosystem. As a journalist, it was my job to synthesize and reflect on the experience, as well as live it.
The other fellows in the program were all programmers or technologists, but I write about business and technology. While they were placed in tech startups, WorldChicago set me up in a tailor-made program that focused on tech innovation and entrepreneurship, but also on media.
During my stay I lived in Chicago’s South Loop, within walking distance from the center of the city. If hopped on the bus or the train, I could be anywhere across Chicago in 30 minutes. My hostess, Deborah, a lawyer by trade, and her large, orange cat “Harley,” allowed me to stay in their spare bedroom.
I was also fortunate to have landed with Barbara K. Iverson, journalist and co-founder of ChicagoTalks.org, a community and citizen- journalism operation housed at Columbia College Chicago. Iverson’s knowledge, youthful spirit and openness to people surprised me to say at least. After 21 years at Columbia College Chicago, she was preparing to retire, but was eager to introduce me to Chicago journalists and entrepreneurs around town.
Most of my spare time was dedicated to learning as much as I could about Chicago’s media culture and the transformation it has been experiencing in recent years. Chicago is ahead of Slovenia when it comes to media presence on the internet so I was able to learn how technology can disrupt the new and media business and get a glimpse of how Slovenian media may go through a similar transformation.
Tomaž Modic was a visiting Fellow, sponsored by WorldChicago, from Slovenia. He was in Chicago and worked with Barbara Iverson and ChicagoTalks.org during May 2015
Short Biography / Professional Interests: Tomaz Modic is a journalist at Dnevnik, a Ljubljana-based news publication that began operating in 1951 and is one of the largest daily news media publications in Slovenia. Tomaz specializes in covering topics related to economics and technology including foreign investments, the IT-sector and entrepreneurship. In the past, he has led special supplemental sections in Dnevnik on Foreign Direct Investment in Slovenia. Tomaz has also started a company that specializes in providing business intelligence services to companies looking to invest in Slovenia. Tomaz studied economics at the University of Ljubljana.[/pullquote]
During my stay, I met a lot of interesting people and with a lot of help from Iverson, visited many institutions and landmarks. We went to Basecamp, Youtopia, 1871, the Knight Lab at Northwestern, Cards Against Humanity, a Chi Hack Night, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Chicago Tribune, among others.
At the Chicago Tribune, I had the opportunity to meet with Associate Managing Editor Geoff Brown, and Senior Editor Kurt Gessler. They told me how digital technology and mobile strategies work at the Tribune.
John O’Neill, assistant metro editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, led me around the newsroom where I met many of the reporters and editors, and we discussed how the business of news has been disrupted by digital technologies.
Despite challenges both companies face, the people I met were generous with their time, showing me around and explaining where the news and business of news is today, and where they are working to be in the future.
The insights were astounding. The ambiance at the Chicago Sun-Times was pretty gloomy, much like that of newspapers in Slovenia. The continuous falling advertising revenue, a shrinking customer base, and employee layoffs has been demoralizing, but the need to cover the news and do it with integrity remains.
At the Chicago Tribune, things seemed better. The managing editor explained that the owners of the paper realize they can’t fire more journalists and hurt the quality of the content, and still expect to prosper. Instead they decided to invest more in hiring reporters, and they think it is paying off. Still, they know the future is in digital first, and they are trying to provide their readers with what they want.
I visited 1871, Chicago’s entrepreneurial hub for digital startups. I saw firsthand how entrepreneurs, engineers and people from the financial industry are working together and shaping new technologies, disrupting old business models, and resetting the boundaries of what’s possible.
I attended a session where Simeon Schnapper from Youtopia, and a couple of other entrepreneurs spoke to a group of high school students about startups and collaboration. I also had a whole-day training session on entrepreneurship with Kellogg School of Management.
Listening to lecturers and interesting entrepreneurs about their experiences was really insightful and has opened my horizons. It also helped me realize how easy it is to decide you want to be an entrepreneur and create.
I learned about The Distance, a podcast by reporter Wailin Wong, which is underwritten by Basecamp, a productivity and project management company. The Distance focuses on stories about longevity in business, featuring the stories of businesses that have endured for at least 25 years and the people who got them there.
Wong, a former journalist at the Chicago Tribune, calls it a “dream job.” She was hired by Basecamp founder Jason Fried, because he decided to start something new, and wanted a reporter to write positive stories about local, longtime businesses.
At first she wrote stories online then added audio podcasts. Finally decided to only publish the podcasts.
“I saw there is much higher potential in reaching the audience and getting loyal listeners,” Wong explained.
I toured the shared workspace of Cards Against Humanity, known for their “party game for horrible people,” which launched using Kickstarter and aims to be a co-working and community hub.
One of my stops was at Knight Lab, located at Northwestern University. Joe Germuska leads a team of graduate student technologists and journalists working at advancing news media innovation through exploration and experimentation.
We also didn’t miss the world-famous Billy Goat Tavern, located beneath Michigan Avenue, where notable journalists still go for a burger and a beer.
The goal of the Professional Fellows Program is for the fellows to gain insight into best practices in tech innovation, entrepreneurship, and education and to experience how an effective urban tech innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem operates. The program worked well.
During my four weeks in Chicago, I learned several important lessons: sharing ideas benefits both parties; successful and wealthy people are willing to fund great and socially beneficial ideas; and doing, even if you sometimes fail, leads to success. I have forged friendships and made many contacts that could benefit me later in my professional career.
About the Fellowship Program
The U.S. Department of State’s Professional Fellows Program connects emerging leaders with government offices, public policy-oriented NGOs, private companies, and university departments for short-term, intensive fellowships designed to broaden their professional expertise. This unique professional development opportunity provides young global leaders with exposure to U.S. government and civil society processes, hands-on research experience, and a platform to learn and share best practices with their American counterparts. Since 2010, WorldChicago has hosted more than 135 Fellows in the program.