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Chicagoness - Learning from the Past, Building in the Present, Investing for the Future

As I take a moment to reflect on #GivingTuesday, I cannot help but put pen to paper and attempt to articulate a theme we saw represented in many Chicago events this Fall - the idea of “Chicagoness” or “Conscious Chicago,” as coined by the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center and YWCA Metropolitan Chicago respectively. Two months ago, my co-founder Rishi Shah and I were standing on stage at 1871’s Momentum Awards, receiving the generous inaugural recognition of representing “Chicagoness.” This challenged me to distill my thoughts and inspired me to share them here.

Chicagoness is that smile you see on people’s faces when you land at O’Hare, welcoming you back home. Chicagoness is the spark in the eyes of friends, colleagues and strangers that is lit with a desire to build our city towards greatness and the grittiness it takes to get there. Chicagoness is the millions of arms locked together to protect our city from segregation, violence and socio-economic divides. Chicagoness is a shared consciousness, unspoken commitment and the constant perseverance to create the world we want our children to thrive in - all the children of this city.

Nearly ten years ago, we decided to launch our business, ContextMedia, while undergraduate students at Northwestern University. The campus community and the Chicagoland community served as willing mentors, ready to take a chance on us, generous with time, advice and encouragement, asking for nothing in return. We decided to build our business in Chicago, and not move to either coast, because of this community. When I reflect on what creates a community, or defines one, it is really that feeling of being on a common journey with shared attitudes, interests and goals.

We have much to be thankful for as we look back in time appreciative of the business leaders who have invested back in our city, especially to rebuild it after the Chicago fire of 1871; people over the past century who have created the civic and learning institutions in which we now thrive. Marshall Field donated the land for the University of Chicago and $1 million to build what now is known as the Field Museum of Natural History. Decades later, Julius Rosenwald, an owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company, focused his philanthropic endeavors on the most immediate needs of society, founding the Museum of Science and Industry as well as supporting education for African American children in the post-Civil War era. More recently, J.B. Pritzker, Larry Levy and Pat Ryan have continued to expand education opportunities for students at Chicago schools and universities as well as provide business and philanthropic leadership in Chicago. “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world,” as famously said by Nelson Mandela.

Now, it’s our turn to carry forward this investment in our community to create the next generation of successful contributors. We have amazing lessons and role models from the past. We have unbound opportunities and a robust ecosystem today to build our organizations in. And we have a responsibility to continue this momentum to entrust a global city of inclusion, collaboration and innovation to our future business civic leaders. Philanthropy can be quite simple and its etymology just means “love of humanity.” You can start today:

1. Build: Create an environment of giving at your workplace. As neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s research highlights, giving fosters wellbeing and healthier minds. Assign a handful of team members to catalyze opportunities to bring awareness, connect volunteers and foster a community of giving at your company. A great way to start is by partnering with citywide organizations, such as Urban Alliance and Year Up, which provide underserved urban students with workplace internships and skills training.

2. Support: Rosenwald championed the phrase, “Give while you live.” The generosity gene is manifested in multiple forms - your time, mentorship, and frankly, you showing up, demonstrates to our city’s children that they are valuable members of our community and we deeply care about their success. The next time our Chicago Children’s Choir is performing at Millennium Park, OneGoal is organizing a CPS class visit, or LaunchU is seeking college essay mentors, your commitment to share your story, ask thoughtful questions, and connect meaningfully with our aspiring students can support them in very tangible ways.

3. Invest: It is no secret that to achieve the impactful results our non-profit organizations are missioned with, there is no complete alternative to fundraising. While creating opportunities and community are extremely valuable ways to engage, enabling the organizations through financial support is also important. Good news is now you can participate via funds such as The Fund, A Better Chicago, SVP Chicago and The Ounce, so you know your dollars are being leveraged against qualified groups equipped for successful growth through your investment.

Giving back doesn’t start or end with #GivingTuesday, just like you don’t start or pause living on your birthday; rather both are days of reflection to align with a future vision you want to strive towards. Chicago, the City of the Big Shoulders, has been built over decades through the tireless efforts of so many embodying the truest meaning of “Chicagoness,” and it is now on our generation to carry on this consciousness and generosity. I could not have been on this journey without all the support I receive - in kind by hundreds of folks and in the form of a scholarship, endowed by an anonymous donor, that funded my high school education. And it is an honor and privilege to belong to the Chicagoland community that is investing in the future talent of this city. On #GivingTuesday, I encourage each of you to envision what our city will look like in twenty years and make no little plans.

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About the Author
Shradha Agarwal, Co-Founder and President, ContextMedia
ContextMedia co-founder Shradha Agarwal has always had a passion for people and communication as well as finding alignment of profit and purpose, starting her first media enterprise at age 9. When building ContextMedia, she branded the healthcare media company as for-benefit, a successful for-profit enterprise that exists for social benefit. At ContextMedia, Shradha designed the media and marketing strategies, developed expansion initiatives that doubled the company's growth year-over-year, and now leads scaling and sustaining culture and people. ContextMedia has been recognized as 101 Best & Brightest Companies to Work For two years running as well as a Top Gen Y Employer.

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