My Op-Ed for Crains Chicago Business: Black business is fading? Startups and collaboration can be the cure

Two years to the date of my first Opinion piece for a publication, I wrote a second piece in response to a Crains special report that I read about Black business in Chicago. The piece explains my frustration with the lack of collaboration, especially among generations and my hope that we can do something soon to change. There is so much power in our communities, and using the talent that’s eager and ready to make a difference, should be a priority. I tried to focus on solutions, because the problems are well-known, especially among those that are on the front lines affecting change. 

(Original Crains Article) 

Black business is fading? Startups and collaboration can be the cure

By: Emile Cambry Jr. December 09, 2013

In 2011, I wrote an op-ed for Crain’s asking African-American leaders to create an ecosystem that fosters more jobs, more startups and more opportunities for our communities. It’s still lacking.

According to Crain’s Nov. 22 in-depth report, “Why Chicago’s history of black business success is fading,” Chicago has its fair share of nationally recognized African-American politicians, entertainers, musicians and athletes. Despite that, the representation of high-growth minority entrepreneurs doesn’t mirror the diversity of the city. Meanwhile, Illinois ranks third in the nation for our disparity between the income of the top 5 percent and the bottom 20 percent of households. There is no evidence suggesting that gap is shrinking.

We need to build an ecosystem if we want to shift the tide of unemployment and underemployment in minority communities, foster minority entrepreneur and unleash innovation.

The time has come for the formation of a minority-oriented Leadership Greater Chicago or New Leaders Council-type program to mold and cultivate future leaders. We need an Asian American Action Fund-like organization to fund, train and empower future public servants. We need an Emily’s List-type organization that holds current elected officials accountable for workforce development, job growth and ensuring that our children have access to a 21st-century education. We need our analogue to the New Orleans Startup Fund, targeting economic growth in communities that need it. Such pipeline programs would create the business climate necessary for the next generation of corporate leadership to better reflect the diversity of the city. The beauty is that we can do this ourselves.


We have all the tools to create those ecosystems and pipeline programs right now. Illinois features a bevy of elite minority talent. Now we need to put some muscle behind those who are eager and ready to lead. And I’m not referring just to recent graduates of good schools. I’m also referring to the men and women with a commitment to economically empowering our communities.

We live in Chicago, an international city with limitless potential. It’s also the city where 30-year-olds are working McJobs usually reserved for teenagers. A city where youth violence has garnered national attention. A Chicago where, according to Built In Chicago, $265 million in funding was raised in the third quarter of this year for digital startups, while there were $846 million in exits. Despite this inflow and outflow of capital, too few minorities are benefiting.


I am not just trying to identify a problem, I’m also trying to be a part of the solution. I foundedBLUE1647 and the 21st Century Youth Project to provide these very opportunities.

BLUE1647 is an innovation center where engineers and entrepreneurs build and accelerate their businesses, and the 21st Century Youth Project is a program that teaches technology classes on mobile and web development for youth. This sort of community economic development aims to open doors for those who would otherwise have them slammed in their face while also providing true alternatives to those who may otherwise get caught up in the violence going on in our communities.

We need a new breed of high-growth businesses founded by African-Americans to build a better Chicago. While it’s critical to acknowledge the accomplishments of current minority business owners, we should ensure more minority men and women can join their ranks.

We can do that by nurturing high-growth businesses like local manufacturing, 3D printing and rapid prototyping. We can do that by asking all of the leaders from Crain’s report to embrace intergenerational collaboration and be willing to meet with up-and-coming leaders. We can do that by creating the programs that allow Chicago’s most talented men and women to shine.


We talk about the work that needs to be done and only few respond. We’ve already established where we are. Yes, rhetoric fills part of the void, and is beneficial for inspiration, but we need the skill, passion and innovation of those willing to do the work required to pick up where others left off. To solve this problem and many others, it is going to take much more effort.

Let’s pair those who have amassed wealth and influence in Chicago with those who need mentorship. I’m envisioning public-private strategic partnerships and sponsorships, workforce development programs for 21st-century jobs and careers, inclusive events and awards ceremonies to celebrate young talent and established enterprises, and an impact fund utilizing those with resources and willingness to affect change.

Can this happen? I’m hopeful it will, and I’m willing to help any way I can.

1,000 Strong For BLUE Campaign

It all started when we were deciding what would make BLUE1647 powerful, not just from a monetary standpoint, but from stakeholders who were focused on making BLUE a place that we always dreamed of. With all of the bells and whistles an innovation center should have, with the people that are laser-focused on creating products and services to create jobs and opportunities for our communities. Collaboration and forming a coalition is the only way we change Chicago for a better Chicago, one where investment is tightly linked to outcomes, and on true metrics that impact lives, not vanity metrics. Below is some more information linking investment to outcomes, but we feel that the days of qualitative metrics are over, and by us showing everything that’s built out of our facility, we’ll differentiate ourselves from other organizations.

By joining our movement, these are the benefits:

  • Private newsletter with opportunities to vote and provide input on future programming and events
  • Adopt-an-entrepreneur program where we’ll provide a complimentary membership for an entrepreneur, and they’ll send you updates on their progress
  • Special social network to have access to content and programming within BLUE and our member companies.
  • First dibbs on any special products and services built from BLUE
  • Access to the space as a BLUE1647 member
  • And many, many more as we progress and hit our milestones.

Here’s more information, but join our campaign!


The Race to One Thousand Campaign is BLUE1647′s funding initiative. BLUE1647 is a next generation innovation center located in the heart of Chicago’s Pilsen community.

BLUE1647 is already making meaningful differences in the lives of Chicago area people from grade school youth to seasoned business people embarking on entrepreneurial ventures. BLUE1647 needs your support to execute on the next phase of our strategic plan. With one thousand supporters, BLUE1647 will be able to provide educational and functional programming to under-served stakeholders. As a beacon of resource through physical space and curated programming, BLUE1647 is a place where diverse people working for a better world can quickly access relationships and support to bring their ideas to life.


Simply put, our staff and programming generates results, and promises to deliver higher and better returns with your support. Our unique educational background led to the development of a one-of-a-kind business model that promises to build lasting opportunities that you can see.

Here’s what we’ve done on a shoestring budget:

3,500+ hours of business and tech classes

6,000+ visitors to BLUE

Here’s our goals for 2014:

15,000 hours of instruction

1,000 digital or physical products created

100 internship and jobs created

For $25/month donation, we can provide a Chicago Public School’s student with the education and mentoring of a technological expert on a weekly basis. The student will learn the details of the application programming interface for the Apple and Google platforms, how to plan and design an application on various platforms, and how to move from concept to customers. For your contribution of $50.00 per month, we can provide a veteran with job training and relevant skills to jumpstart their career and avoid the common pitfalls of the reintegration process. For your contribution of $100.00 per month, you provide a budding entrepreneur with the resources to develop their idea and into a functioning business, and create job opportunities for the veterans and students who participate in the training and programming that you support. That includes coursework in business planning, marketing, accounting, and tax as well as the back office support staff to provide daily feedback and assistance to budding entrepreneurs at any stage of their business cycle.

Soft Launch of


It all happened at a hackathon we hosted in February. As with most hackathons, there are orders of magnitude more food than there are people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hackathon come remotely close to running out of food. The idea of all you can eat for a weekend while you code away is the only way it’s done.

We were left with a dilemma: throw the food away or find some way of donating it. None of the participants wanted to take it home and we were left with a stockpile of perishable food that needed a refrigerator. But, we ran out of space in our fridge and some of the food ended up spoiling and as we threw out the food, I couldn’t help feel irresponsible that we left perfectly good food go to waste.

On the second day of the hackathon, I was determined not to let the food waste. So after everyone ate, I took the remaining food to the a nearby homeless shelter and I instantly felt better. As with any moment where you have an idea, I immediately researched all avenues for donating perishable food. As with any food or clothing drive, we can all donate all of our goods and clothing every day of the week, the challenge was, it’s a pain to go through that process. Then I thought: can we make it easier? Can we make this process financially beneficial to donate? There are 190 million pounds of food that goes to waste every year that should have been consumed at our homes, restaurants, and other venues. There’s any opportunity to bridge that gap using technology. And that’s what I set out to do.

In my Code Chicago course, I decided to build an app to be an UBER for perishable foods. One button click to get someone to your door to pick up food and donate it to the individuals that need it the most. I built the MVP from scratch and after testing it out, I realized that it could be much better with the help of a very experienced coder. So Kenneth Watkins, a member of the BLUE1647 team jumped in and built the real-deal, LeftForGood, a platform that aims to solve the problem of hunger with food that’s good to eat. We’re starting with restaurants as a source of food and we’ll be updating you soon as we hit some key milestones on our way of putting a little dent in this growing problem. With the economy being so tough for so many, with very little signs of getting better any time soon, this is an opportunity to affect change and do our small part in impacting lives. If you know someone that owns a restaurant or anyone that runs a homeless shelter, please get in touch. The mobile apps will be in the app stores soon.

Expect many more of these in 2014: collaborations, companies, products, and services out of BLUE. It’s the kind of community that Chicago will be very proud of. Simple solutions to complex problems. We’ll start calling them “BLUE originals”.

Community Thanksgiving Dinner Recap at BLUE1647

Every time I write a new blog entry, I check out the previous entry and realize over and over again how infrequently I update my blog. Then I write a new entry and declare that I will write more often. This time, I mean it!

Yesterday, we hosted a thanksgiving dinner at BLUE1647 for the entire community of Pilsen. When I first developed this concept, I wanted it to be the exact opposite of a soupkitchen: the volunteers on one side serving the “people” on the other side. To me, it suggests we’re different, which is contrasts with the fact that we live different lives. I wanted rich and poor, old and young, unsheltered and sheltered to eat together at the same table, and serve themselves like a family. And that’s what we did, and we did it well for Version 1.0.

As with this Tribune article on BLUE1647 that was published last week, we could either be a gentrifying force, or be a part of the community. This year, we had our first community dinner and we expect to have many, many more! We had a great turnout from all walks of life, and the energy and love in the room was infectious.


Latest Updates! It’s been busy!

I should have updated my blog many, many months ago. There’s been so much going on, but I will make more effort to update my blog on what’s going on in the land of grassroots social entrepreneurship. Here’s a lineup of the updates.

On August 20, 2013, I led a Anti-Violence Youth Summit in partnership with Chicago State University, 17th Ward Alderman Latasha Thomas, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City of Chicago. It was an amazing experience to hear the youth explain what things are going on in their community, the lack of services and resources, and we were pleased that the Mayor spoke at the event.


BLUE1647 Updates


We have had an opportunity to release some of our impact figures:

3,500+ hours of business and tech classes

5,154 people have walked through our doors

We’ve hosted over 43 events and meetups

We hosted the Chicago Music Hack Day

We forged some great partnerships with Englewood Codes, MsTech, Young and Powerful, and Women Empowerment

Our 21st Century Youth Project is a Semi-Finalist for the A Better Chicago grant competition.

Chicago International Social Change Film Festival

We were beyond pleased with the reception, press and turnout for the 2nd annual film festival. We sold out opening night and all of our screenings were well attended. We can’t wait for the 3rd Annual Chicago International Social Change Film Festival!

Here’s some links to our press:,0,7366404.column

Fred Hampton Image Award of 2013

I was pleased to have been awarded the Fred Hampton Image Award, for my commitment to service and making the community better.


I was a panelist in NYC for the FOCUS100 event, sharing some insight on how to build a pipeline of talent. I must say, it was the best conference I’ve attended. I can’t wait for next year!

BLUE1647 is born!

ImageHi everyone, it’s been a long, long while since I’ve posted on my blog. The past 5-6 months have been filled with many changes, one being that I have branched out and have founded a technology and entrepreneurship innovation center, BLUE1647. As with anything entrepreneurial, you have to pivot and rotate towards the opportunity that generates the greatest ROI and the least path to resistance. I had to go back to my roots of education and opportunity, and position our center as a place where people get started through education, workshops, and targeted events. Check out our facebook page for more updates, but we’re able to accomplish so much, in such a short amount of time. 

The 21st Century Youth Project partners with the YWCA of Metro Chicago for Haute & Smart: Girls in Fashion Tech Series


In what has been an amazing opportunity, our award-winning program, the 21st Century Youth Project has teamed up with the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago for our Girls in Fashion Tech Series, a series of 13-week programs combining web and mobile programming, hardware development for “wearable” technology, and some 3D printing, culminating into a fashion show. 

We couldn’t be more excited about this collaboration, as an opportunity to work with more girls in tech, have fun, and team up with the YWCA, led by CEO Dorri McWhorter. The YWCA has done some very innovative programming with their TechgGYRLS program and we’re excited to add an additional layer. More details are coming soon.

IF you’d like to learn more, volunteer, partner, or help in any capacity, feel free to contact us.


About TechGYRLS

TechGYRLS provides middle school girls with opportunities for intensive exploration of technology. This highly successful and fun program broadens girls’ knowledge and helps them develop confidence in using technology. Furthermore, it helps girls envision career opportunities in technology that await them. TechGYRLS is a 14-week after-school program and also offered during the summer as a day camp with a different theme each 2-week session that incorporates science, life skills, recreation and technology.


About the 21st Century Youth Project

The 21st Century Youth Project ( teaches technology as a path to opportunity. It is a free comprehensive program that prepares low-income middle and high school students for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) careers. The program focuses on improving skills today (through immersive teaching and tutoring), tomorrow (through coaching and mentoring), and the future (through internship placement and Alumni Community), with an entrepreneurial focus. Key deliverables for student participants are creation of mobile (Google Android, iPhone, iPad etc.) and web apps for accompanying business plans, accrual of college credits and case studies on their resumes and digital portfolios because of hands-on tangible skills gained through internship placements.

The 21st Century Youth Project launches Haute & Smart: Girls in Fashion Tech Series

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I’ll be honest, I’m far from being recognized as a fashion maven. Give me a pair of gym shoes, a polo/t-shirt, and some jeans, and I feel well-dressed. But, no one can deny that technology is reaching into new and exciting areas. You can’t be in tech and not notice the number of “smart clothes” that are entering the market, blurring the line between what is considered purely fashion, or just tech. In fact, event at Fashion Week, tech stole the show.There are smart shoes, which send data to your smartphone, undergarmets which can measure heart rate, and even high-tech jackets that are more like full-functional computers than windbreakers.

In our latest 21st Century Open Hack, our phenomenal instructor, Kris Roberts demoed a hoodie that could be lit and was fully programmable. It received an amazing response from the young girls who participated. That was our aha moment! As with many organizations and programs, we’d love to have more girls participate and reap the benefits of our program. We’re not saying that every girl has to be into fashion OR enter our program only on this track, but the point is, we thought we could enter a completely new avenue of interest (and growth), particularly among young girls, that have a keen interest in fashion as well as technology. Every young woman can still signup for our regular OpenHack at BLUE1647 without having to pursue the fashion track! And if all goes well, and we have interest from young men, we may have a separate track, but for right now, we’re only piloting this with young women.

The challenge of encouraging students to learn something outside of school, is making it unlike traditional school. We must capitalize on the areas that interests the students the most and then use that as an opportunity to provide those transferrable skills. In response to the need of specific education programs designed to teach and train youth what could be called “Fashion Tech”, the 21st Century Youth Project has created a new series of courses. In essence, young girls (who already have an interest in fashion and/or technology) will be instructed in sewing, design, and software programming, culminating with a fashion show displaying the students wear-able designs and lessons learned.

The basic idea is to teach these students how they might be able to create fully-functional and “wear-able” pieces of technology. Not only is this a great opportunity for them to truly open up their imagination to new and exciting possibilities, it’s also a chance to learn real-world skills.

Currently, the program is slated to start on Saturday, April the 6th and will run until May the 4th. Afterwards, there will be a presentation/fashion show on May 9th. To sign up, go here. It costs just $30 total for the five weeks (yes, just $6/week for materials) and we’re limiting the class size to the first twenty that sign up.

Here’s a link to our press release.


BLUE1647 presented at Depaul University

It was truly an hour to present BLUE1647 at Depaul University’s Social Enterprise Collaborative yesterday. It’s incredible how much energy you can derive from a packed auditorium of people inspired by your work. It makes the tough days where you wonder why you’re working so hard, worth it.


BLUE1647 Updates: Game Dev Courses, Entrepreneur Fellows Program, and BLUE Gaming League

We, BLUE1647, a technology an entrepreneurship incubator in the Pilsen community have started to build out more of our programs, adding value to our community. We are aiming to embrace all forms of entrepreneurship, from web and mobile based technology, to filmmaking.

Update #1: Game Development Courses

Several weeks ago, we announced here that Code Chicagocourses in web and mobile technology are now offered at BLUE1647. Today, we’re informing everyone that we will also offer game development courses as well. Led by James “Quake” Cottrell III, an adjunct professor at several colleges and universities in Chicago, the course, Game Design 101: 3D Modeling using Maya, designed for beginners, is a comprehensive course that will cover the basics of modeling in Maya, focusing on three basic modeling types: polygonal nurbs, and Sub-D modeling. The course will focus on making twelve video game assets to populate a game, and focus on one detailed weapon. As with the other courses, these courses will be one of a sequence of courses. The 21st Century Youth Project will now be offering game development courses as well!

Update #2: Entrepreneur Fellows Program

The BLUE Entrepreneur Fellows Program (or, EFP) was created in an effort to directly engage current college students (majoring in any field of study), or participants over 18 years of age interested in entrepreneurial learning.  Aside from promoting group-based problem solving and creative thinking, the program also seeks to connect these students with a myriad of successful entrepreneurs, which will serve as both teachers as well as mentors. The EFP will be a 12-week program, hosted at the BLUE1647Tech Incubator, and seeks to provide a bridge between theories, real-world practices and emerging opportunities. The students will develop their own business plan and at the end of the program, will have a pitch/demo day of their concepts. To apply, go here .

Update #3: BLUE Gaming League

In knowing the strong correlation between programmers, entrepreneurs, and techies, we wanted to do something fun within BLUE. We decided to put together the BLUE Gaming League, a regular set of gaming tournaments in everything from Mortal Kombat, NBA 2K13, Madden, and Halo 4.Our first tournament is March 16th. If interested, please sign up!

Update #4: Chicago Film Institute

Starting in June, the Chicago Film Institute will offer “conservatory” programs in filmmaking. The first conservatory module begins in early June and will last 10 weeks culminating with the collaborative shooting of the film project . Another 24 week module will start in early September. For more information on the conservatory please visit our website at or come to BLUE1647(1647 S. Blue Island Ave.) on March 9th for a Chicago Film Meet-up to talk more about the program and network with local filmmakers and artists.