Neal Sales-Griffin - The New Managing Director of Techstars Chicago

Jul 09, 2019

Today, I couldn’t be more excited to announce that I’m officially joining Techstars as the Managing Director for Techstars Chicago. The Chicago accelerator program has played a part in my life dating back to my undergraduate days at Northwestern University. There, I met Troy Henikoff – Techstars Chicago’s first managing director – who taught knowledge-hungry students about the world of entrepreneurship.

Troy was more than just a professor – he was my first true mentor – who pushed me into the world of tech and eventually turned me into a mentor myself. I was so inspired that I took on a teaching assistant role for his entrepreneurship course and eventually saw my close friends start a successful business under his wing. Their company, Next Big Sound, joined Techstars Boulder in 2009, and went on to have great success. Seeing the impact of mentorship, both in my personal network and through Techstars, inspired me to carve my own path in the tech startup world.

With the impact of Techstars and mentorship in my early college days, I jumped into the startup world as soon as I could, co-founding my first company, a healthcare media startup, during my freshman year in college. I caught the entrepreneurship bug and went on to open a few barbershops in my local Chicago neighborhood, and eventually went on to work in the world of venture capital. Through my work co-founding The Starter League, the first coding bootcamp in the country, I helped galvanize the Chicago startup ecosystem and pushed my local community to learn the skills they needed to succeed in the technology space.

Before Techstars was in Chicago, we had Excelerate Labs, which eventually was acquired by Techstars (be sure to listen to this episode of the #GiveFirst podcast on the inception of Techstars Chicago for more details). I was the official photographer for the first-ever Excelerate Labs Demo Day where I got a sense of what an accelerator program looked like first hand. When Techstars officially came to town in 2013, I linked up with Troy to become an official mentor and have held roles within the accelerator ever since. 

I have to give thanks to Logan LaHive for his work as Managing Director. Logan and I have been friends since 2010, around the same time that Excelerate was getting started. We’ve shared a similar entrepreneurial journey. We’ve been in the trenches together and learned a lot from our friendship. Logan called on me as mentor #1 during the 2018 program. I even had the honor to address the class and audience as keynote speaker for Demo Day this past year. Logan will still have a part to play within the Chicago program and will be stopping by in a mentorship capacity to help continue to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem in our great city.

Most recently, I hit the campaign trail to run for mayor of Chicago. Many had noticed that I ran my campaign like a tech startup, building and implementing software for efficiency. Throughout this experience, I learned that most people need one simple thing – a good, well-paying job that provides them with meaning and purpose in their work. As Managing Director of Techstars Chicago, I’m excited to help foster innovation within the city to create successful companies that drive more jobs to our community, and hopefully, help more people find meaning and purpose in their work.

My mission is to showcase the power of Chicago as a major technology hub by fostering even more innovation within the city limits. There are a few components that will be very important to applicants for this program:

  • We want founders who are beyond passionate about their work and about the community their business thrives in. At Techstars, it’s all about the founding team. We prioritize finding the right people over the right ideas.

  • We have a #GiveFirst mentality at Techstars. We’ll be investing in founders who embody this approach in their work.

  • We’re looking for founders who have a deep and intimate understanding of who their customers are, what they need, and how to reach them. At Techstars Chicago, you’ll get intensive training on customer acquisition and sales.

  • We’re also interested in companies committed to leaning into the uniqueness of the Chicago technology community. We have a special blend of mentorship, camaraderie, and investment culture that will be a competitive advantage our founders.

Chicago’s culture has a unique level of #givefirst mentality. We’re not boisterous, or braggadocious, and our hard, disciplined work ethic coupled with good work-life balance allows our culture to be more collaborative than competitive. The Chicago tech ecosystem is also one of diversity, an important differentiator in today’s world. The Chicago tech and entrepreneur community has welcomed me with open arms since I was just a kid. Most people from the community didn’t look like me or come from where I’m from. Being a black and latino man growing up on the South Side of Chicago with no real understanding of what it means to start a business, I was welcomed and enabled to flourish as an entrepreneur and investor.

Whether you’re from Chicago, or see these qualities in yourself and business partners, I invite you to apply to the next Techstars Chicago program. As a non-profit founder teaching kids how to code, a Techstars mentor since day one and following in Troy’s footsteps as both a professor at Northwestern University and now, Managing Director of Techstars Chicago, I’m ready to push Chicago’s innovation even further by bringing the best of the best to our city. Techstars Chicago will be opening applications for our 2020 program on July 22nd and will be accepting applications through October 13th. The program begins on January 27th, please visit the Techstars Chicago page on the 22nd to apply.