Building An Inclusive Ecosystem for Chicago’s Diverse Tech Founders

Verizon Impact Forward Blog Series

Chicago is rapidly emerging as a hub for tech innovation, with a remarkable 18% growth in the city’s tech workforce over the past decade. As one of the nation’s most diverse cities, Chicago also stands out among U.S. metro areas for its rich founder diversity – with 34% of startup ventures founded by women and 26% led by Black or Latino founders – more than triple the national average as of 2023.  

Despite the city’s vibrant landscape for tech entrepreneurship, equitable access to venture capital funding remains a significant challenge for Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (BIPOC) and women founders in the city. A recent study by Chicago:Blend and World Business Chicago highlights that only 2.4% of venture capital funding reached Black-led companies from 2018 to 2023, with women-founded companies receiving less than 15%. This notably mirrors national trends, with Black-led startups in the U.S. securing just 0.5% of all venture capital funding in 2023. Underinvestment in BIPOC and women-led startups is often driven by a lack of networking opportunities, mentorship, and resources on accessing capital.

Verizon is working to change that alongside Chicago-based nonprofit P33 through our joint initiative, TechRise, which provides the critical funding, knowledge, and networks that underrepresented founders need to grow their companies from the pre-seed stage to exit. P33 was launched by a coalition of Chicago-based business and tech leaders in 2019 to advance inclusive global tech and innovation leadership in the city.

At the heart of TechRise is a weekly pitch competition for overlooked, early-stage start-up founders in Chicago across industries. Participants pitch their business ideas to a panel of venture capital funders, with the weekly winner securing between $25,000 and $50,000 in non-dilutive prizes. This funding gives early-stage businesses the ability to grow their companies without giving up ownership rights.

Steven Shaw, Community Engagement Director at Verizon said, “Our goal with providing nondilutive prizes is to ease the early financial burdens that disproportionately hinder underrepresented tech founders. Verizon understands that such funding is crucial for enabling founders to accelerate innovation and growth without the added pressure of sacrificing equity or taking on debt.”

After a two-week voting period, semi-finalists advance to a panel of judges who choose six founders for the finale pitch to win $100,000. Of the 110 pitch competition winners, more than 80% identify as Black or Latino and 63% are women. Winning founders continue to raise, on average, an additional $900,000 in funding, nearly nine times the amount compared to non-TechRise participants. Since the program’s inception, more than 300 BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ+ founders have showcased their innovations to venture capital investors and the public.

By expanding much-needed access to funding and networks, TechRise is helping to break down the barriers that many BIPOC founders face when growing their businesses. Corinne Vargas, the 2022 TechRise grand prize winner and founder of healthcare app SMARTCharts, received $100,000 from the Season Two Finale pitch competition. This funding allowed her to further develop her AI-driven app, which converts progress notes from speech, occupational, and physical therapy care teams into visuals for patients, and grow her business into a full team that is operational today. The TechRise program has provided Corinne and many other underrepresented founders with the necessary resources, platform, and connections to grow their businesses.   

Desiree Vargas Wrigley, Chief Innovation Officer at P33 and TechRise Executive Director, said, “Through TechRise, we’re not just funding businesses, we’re building ecosystems. Whether related to health tech or media, these founders continuously bring innovation solutions that address real-world problems, which in turn is helping to catalyze local economic development in Chicago.”

To celebrate the tech community, this summer P33 is hosting Chicago Tech Week from July 22-26 and Verizon is a proud sponsor of this signature gathering. The third annual event brings together all tech makers in the city through a series of in-person events that highlight current trends in the tech ecosystem.

Verizon’s continued investment in Chicago through our partnership with P33 helps entrepreneurs with more than just access to capital – it provides a community. The program connects participants to networking events, mentors, and workshops to which founders of color and women too often lack access. The city’s strength lies in its diverse community, and we are continuing to support a vibrant tech culture while solidifying Chicago as an innovation powerhouse.

Verizon Impact Forward is our ongoing series highlighting Verizon’s local approach to corporate social responsibility, including the community-based partnerships that make this work possible.


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