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Tom Alexander: What We've Learned at 1871

After serving Chicago's tech and business community for four years, Tom Alexander, COO of 1871, is moving on. In the first of a two-part series, Alexander shares some of his most valuable lessons when it comes to passion, inclusion, teamwork, and more.


1871 is a magical place, truly. The things that happen inside these four walls are eclipsed only by the amazing things that occur in the broader community and world as a result of what is happening here. We always say that, just as it’s impossible to imagine the city of Chicago without the year 1871, it should likewise be impossible to imagine the city of Chicago without the place 1871.

One of the reasons for this is that the lessons that we are learning every day at 1871 -- the work that we are doing to build this ecosystem and this community and change the world is transferable and accessible. There are lessons that apply to everyone, that anyone in the community can adopt into their own business and life.

Here are a few that, as I come to the end of my four years at 1871, have really resonated, that I think are valuable for everyone to think about as they move forward.

Critical Mass is Everything

You know that old saying, “if the number one incubator falls in the woods and nobody is around to ta8hear it, does it even make a sound?” We think about that all the time here. Over the nearly six years of its existence, 1871 has grown from an experiment and an idea to a thriving, world-renowned environment. We have over 130,000 square feet of space, over 1,500 members, we do 1,000 events a year, and we offer more than 10,000 hours a year of one-on-one mentoring -- to name just a few. You can’t make an impact if you don’t have size and one of the great things about 1871 is how big it has grown and how much stuff is happening. I’m going to miss the feeling of seeing everyone that I know come through 1871 from time to time.

Passion is Everything

ta7The fuel of 1871 and of the entrepreneurial ecosystem is passion. We always say that it’s hard not to fall in love at 1871 -- around every corner there is someone who has put it all on the line for their idea, their future, their aspiration. The environment is meticulously cultivated to foster passion and creativity, and our team has done a lot of work over the years to ensure that we are doing everything possible to bring the most out of people, to give them every chance to make their business a success. Heart is something that is hard to measure, but you know it when you see it, and it’s in abundance at 1871. A special thanks to all the entrepreneurs, mentors, students and others who bring all the passion to 1871 every day.

Inclusion is Everything

A lot of the work we have done at 1871 over the past four years has been around making 1871 the ta5
most diverse, most inclusive, most welcoming place one could imagine. Today, 1871 truly reflects Chicago’s thriving diversity and the wonderfully inclusive climate at 1871 is reflective of the city’s values and ambitions. We have launched exciting programs across the board -- WiSTEM, ChiBuys, the Hispanic Tech Incubator to name a few. We’ve achieved major milestones such as gender parity in our mentor pool and nearly 50 percent diversity in our hiring through our recruiting partners. And we’ve been a leader -- eliminating “manels” in our events, leveraging our purchasing power throughout the community, and most recently announcing that we’ll use our nexus in the community to foster continued conversation around sexual harassment and #metoo. 
Bringing people from different perspectives and watching the magic that happens in the collision of their ideas is a fundamental part of the 1871 experience, and it is constantly on display.

The Ecosystem is Everything

We are building an ecosystem at 1871, and just like in nature, our ecosystem is always growing, totallyta6 self-sustaining and completely inclusive. By now we have created a massive engine that draws people, energy, resources, innovations and opportunity from throughout the community, and spits out people, energy, resources, innovations and opportunity that become the fodder for the next round of progress. This is only possible by bringing together as many different people and perspectives as we can, as mentioned above, and doing so in an environment that is meticulously created to support them. I have often lamented that we only find out about like 1 in 10 magical things that happen at 1871, because it’s hard to promote something that you don’t know about. But the fact that so many amazing things take place at 1871 on a daily basis -- so many connections are made, partnerships formed, ideas hatched, friendships launched -- and that our team doesn’t need to be involved, because the ta8environment drives it? Pretty amazing.

Our new CEO Betsy Ziegler and the team at 1871 are continuing to look at fun ways to expand the ecosystem beyond the four walls of Merchandise Mart, and I think that will bring huge returns to 1871 and the broader community. Everyone can participate in this process.

The Team is Everything

Anybody within 100 miles of the startup space will tell you that it’s all about the team, the team, the team, the team. And it’s true. Companies are successful because of their teams -- it’s the most important thing. We see it on a daily basis at 1871 and have had the privilege of working with a ton of exciting teams.

None are as amazing as our team at 1871. Over the past four years we’ve assembled a remarkable, diverse, inclusive, thoughtful, hard-working, energetic and passionate group, and they have together achieved things that none of us would have imagined. By now we’ve got about 30 folks working here, and they come from all backgrounds, all parts of the city, and they bring their energy and their perspective to work and they do amazing things.

Every day, our folks come in and work as hard as they can, creatively and aggressively and thoughtfully and selflessly, and it’s all on behalf of the community. We are all better for their efforts and the city of Chicago is indelibly marked by their success. And all of us who are involved with 1871 are very, very proud of them.

These are a few lessons that may be useful to everyone in the community as they move forward on our collective work -- building the most vibrant, exciting Chicago that we can.


This is the first post in a two-part series. To read Tom Alexander's second post, "What I Learned From Howard Tullman," click here.

Topics: Community

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