Chicago Ideas Week: Groupon Co-Founder Tries to Spark Entrepreneurs in the Midwest

Chicago Ideas Weej

In October, a nexus of minds enter a discussion with the hope of sparking an entrepreneurial platform similar to Silicon Valley ... but in the Midwest. It's the inaugural Chicago Ideas Week.

"Welcomes the brightest innovators, leaders, change-agents and ideas to the city that nurtures them," trumpets the event website. "It's an enlightening experience that delivers education, inspiration, networking and hands-on experiences to the Chicago citizens and everyone who makes Chicago their home for this unforgettable week." Intriguing, but what this collection of presentations, discussion groups, social events and meeting forums is for? We spoke the man behind the gathering, Brad Keywell, who's more famous as co-founder of Groupon. He's also responsible for driving Chicago's TEDx events to prominence.

FAST COMPANY: Tell us about Chicago Ideas Week—what's it for, and where did the idea come from?

BRAD KEYWELL: Being from Chicago, and more probably speaking about the Midwest, Groupon has been like a beacon—and we're almost a rally cry for people to realize they can do great things and build great companies (technology and otherwise) and you don't need to be in Silicon Valley to do it. We've uniquely created and grown and executed this business, based in Chicago. So this discussion got provoked about the more general entrepreneurial system in the Midwest, and hopefully this is the tip of a big iceberg around innovation and entrepreneurship here.

At the same time I personally go out to the TED conference in California, and when I'm at TED it's beyond blissful in terms of incredible ideas, incredible people and incredible sparks of partnerships and relationships that are getting started at TED. So my initial reaction was "I can't believe we don't have this in Chicago." And so, using the TEDx "flag," we created TEDx Midwest. TEDx is TED's way to liberate the brand, but quality is still different at each TEDx event. So our goal was to create one of if not the best TEDx events in the world, and I think we were successful.

Two things came out of that, and one was it needs to be a bigger event. So in instead of being 350 seats, we're going to be at 800 seats. But the bigger opportunity, and the bigger call to action was "This needs to be broader, needs to be all-encompassing. We should open this up to tens of thousands of people." And so we created Chicago ideas week, something that's long overdue in the mid West.

What format does the event take?

It's the second week of October, and it's across the whole of Chicago. In terms of venues we have hosting events they're as diverse as the Chicago Cultural Center, the United Center and the History Museum. It's an inclusive event. And as part of Ideas Week there's TEDx Mid West, which is obviously an exclusive event.

But this is a non-profit, and I'm doing this not to make money, but because our city and our region needs this. Great startups have to exist, once you start it you realize the world can't live without it and that's what propels you to grow—and Groupon's a good example. Groupon legitimately changes how local businesses look at their world, and I feel the same way about Chicago ideas week. We need this focal point around ideas and innovation. We need it now. And the fact is, I'm right, because the support to help has been overwhelming, and there's support from everyone, from the Mayor on down.

Will it be limited to just this one week?

The one week will become a critical part of the Chicago calendar, but the real outgrowth of this thing is that Chicago Ideas is the brand that'll become part of a year-round program, just like 92nd Street Y is a year-round program in New York.

Boiled to the core, is this an attempt to spark a nexus of innovation in Chicago?

That's part of it. I'm also trying to create a definitive "platform" where all of those in the ideas and innovation world can connect.

Why didn't Chicago have this sort of thing before?

The best answer I can give you is that I don't believe this is the type of thing a government can do, or an association can do or that a big committee can do. This is an entrepreneurial endeavor whose success benefits the entire community, but it needs to be started as a non-profit with a CEO and a founder just as if it were a for-profit startup. Why'd it never get done before? I don't know if anybody had the idea, but if they did, they didn't execute—and that's the failure of many startups.

Where does the money for the idea come from?

I'm the one who's stepped in to do it, and it's not just using a huge amount of my time, but a huge amount of my money as well. I'm a donor. Update: Keywell has contacted us to note that "Mike Hettwet, Linda Stone and I stepped up with our commitment of time and leadership. But beyond time, this is a financial commitment, and along with the MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation and many great companies, I am a financial supporter. This is an event for the people of Chicago and the Midwest, supported by many donors of time, money and passion."

In other words, you're very serious about this?

Yes.

Is there any plan for expanding your ideas beyond the Chicago area—bearing in mind that the West and East coast are more known for startups than the center of the country?

It's not just an event it's a year-round series of programming in Chicago—but most importantly it's a platform. Where it goes can be spectacular, because it could provoke great things or, more importantly, it could connect people to do great things. And what the West and East Coast have, plentifully, is platforms and forums to connect people to do these things, and I believe that what we need in the Midwest is a fantastic equivalent.

So you see it expanding—or inspiring—a greater startup culture outside Chicago, in the same way TED led to the bigger TEDx?

I don't know. I do know that we've got a big opportunity and a big commitment to make Chicago Ideas Week spectacular...and that'll take time. And then, where it goes from there I have no idea.

On a slightly different matter—remembering Groupon and taking note you've said Chicago Ideas week needs a "founder"—you're referred to often as a "serial entrepreneur." Does this ring true with you?

A better phrase is "a guy who starts lots of stuff."

Can we squeeze any information out of you about the future of Groupon?

I can't reveal too much, although it's evident what we're doing—we're expanding aggressively and growing organically, making what I think are very intelligent acquisitions. A lot done very quickly. We're doing our best to stay way ahead of all the clones. There are lots of clones—but what we do is do our thing very well, and so we'll continue to innovate and the clones will continue to copy.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

Add New Comment

2 Comments

  • Mark Von Der Linn

    I'm curious to know more about the format... and if/how it helps a person with a great idea that has no connections for getting something started. I don't think that exists anywhere... a true "idea incubator".

  • Tim Letscher

    Sounds pretty exciting but maybe a tad ambitious? Chicago's a huge city but why spread out the events so much? Even with their public transportation, getting from the Cultural Center to the United Center isn't a walk in the park. Also, if it's all about the midwest, why call it the Chicago Ideas Week? And if it's a week, why is it 10 days?

    (you also may want to proof your interview and correct some of the grammar, yo)