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Kevin Willer, the man who currently heads the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center and brought 1871 to life, will be leaving his post as CEO to join the i2A Fund as a partner, likely early this summer. The transition, which will take place over the next several months until Willer and the Board choose his successor, was announced this morning.
Over the past two years, Willer has led the non-profit through many ventures, most notably the launch and management of co-working center 1871, which now supports 220 early-stage startups, according to a press release.
I caught up with Willer to discuss details of the move, as well as what this means for his career and personal life. Read our edited interview below:
How did this happen – had it been in the works for a while?
KW: I wasn’t really looking for a new opportunity because I really love what I’ve been doing here; it’s been a lot of fun in the last year. But Stuart Larkins, who is [a partner and Managing Director] of the i2A Fund, and I have worked together...a long time. He was looking for a new partner to join him and I really just thought this was a great opportunity to get together and hopefully build on the past success of the i2A Fund.
What are you looking for in your successor at the CEC?
KW: It’s someone with great leadership ability, definitely someone who has built a business or been an entrepreneur and had success with that. I think it’s someone who also has good operational skills...and someone who’s got a great network of folks they can plug into to help the entrepreneurs of 1871 and beyond.
How do you expect your next few months to look as you go through this transition?
KW: We’ve already actually gotten from our Board and other folks the names of candidates [for CEO of CEC]. We’ll compile a list of potential candidates and and then go through the search process. We want to take our time with it, be thoughtful, intelligent and all that, but also, you know, let’s get it done, let’s not drag it out. I’ll be really involved in that and continue to run the day-to-day operations here. Hopefully in May or June I would transition out of the CEO role, we’ll bring the new person in and I’ll go work on the investing side.
What are you hoping to accomplish at i2A Fund?
KW: Look at the history of it – it’s on Fund 2, the first fund was very successful and the second fund will be much bigger because of the success of Fund 1. Right now I think the [main thing] is to finish out the fundraising to close out Fund 2 over the next few months and I’ll hopefully be able to help out a little bit with that. Then, we’re just looking for incredible startups and entrepreneurs in the Chicago area and Illinois to invest in. I think I actually can be a bridge to larger venture capital firms that might be looking to get into the Chicago area.
Moving forward, how do you see your relationship with the CEC and 1871 changing – or staying the same?
KW: I’m going to stay on the Board of Directors and in fact on the Executive Committee of the CEC so I’m going to be very involved still from a Board standpoint. I hope to be able to help the new leader accomplish their goals and still be a visible part of the community. What’s important here, though, is we need more leaders in Chicago...I think this is an opportunity for us to develop some new leaders in the community by bringing someone new into the CEC.
What does this move mean for you, in terms of your career and your life?
KW: I had this great opportunity to co-found the Google office in Chicago 12 years ago and it was an amazing ride from small company to massive global brand. Along the way, I got my MBA from Booth, and did a lot of angel investing. Then I decided to step away from the for-profit world and do my civic and community leadership role for a couple of years, and I really enjoyed that, it’s been so rewarding. Now, I always hoped I could be a partner at a venture firm and this is the perfect situation. These things don’t come along very often and it’s exactly what I want to do. For me, it’s the logical next step in my career. Also, candidly, I have three young kids who are five, three and one, and I haven’t seen them enough in the last year. I want to have a little more balance and I think this new position will allow me a little more flexibility to be a better dad and husband. That is from a personal angle, but it’s definitely a big part of the decision.
Connect with Kevin on Built In Chicago and follow him on Twitter at @kwiller. Also, check out the BIC profiles of the CEC, 1871 and i2A Fund.