Chicago's Got Moxie and the Awards to Prove It

June 22, 2012

Perhaps it's appropriate that the Moxie Awards took place at Park West, one of Chicago's oldest music venues. Tech entrepreneurs are, after all, rock stars in their own right. Like musicians, they represent a variety of genres and, within those, their own personal styles. But when these people come together, it's not to create a soothing symphony but rather an unparalleled concert of ideas and talent that would melt your face off.

First Annual Moxie Awards

Doors opened at 6:30 p.m., and people began streaming in, slowly at first and then in hordes. Those whose companies had reserved tables made their way to their seats (after a pit stop at the bar), while others found places to perch on the main level or on stools in the balcony. The noise level soon rose to a din, with voices mingling with the thumping music. All this was set against a dramatic backdrop of red and black, sophisticated and edgy in its celebration of all that is the Chicago tech world.

With two white knights keeping watch, the crowd took their seats as Built In Chicago President Maria Katris welcomed 900 attendees. Matt Moog, founder and chairman of Built In Chicago, who co-hosted the event with New World Ventures, also gave some opening remarks.

Soon enough, Chicago’s own Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the stage. He of f-bomb fame kept his talk clean (although the same cannot be said of others who followed) and focused on the importance of digital entrepreneurship for Chicago’s economic success.

“This has got to be, as a goal, the digital capital of not just the Midwest—I want this to be the digital capital of the country,” he said. Excitement, dynamics, energy: These were all things Mayor Emanuel promised to provide to Chicago’s tech entrepreneurs in order to help them attract talent from anywhere. “We’ll make this a place where you can recruit the talent, start a business and succeed.”

Cheers erupted when Mayor Emanuel ended by saying, “We will be your partner, not your problem,” alluding to a past when starting a business in Chicago was a messy and difficult task. Now, according to J.B. Pritzker of New World Ventures, a new digital company starts in Chicago every 60 hours.

“Chicago is on pace to create more digital startups than New York City,” Pritzker said.

Moog spoke to the strength of growth of Chicago’s tech community, noting that its 40,000 members would be enough to fill Wrigley Field, and that tech entrepreneurs have a lot in common with Cubs fans. “We are optimistic. We are loyal. And we like beer!”

With such demonstrated and projected growth, now may be the perfect time for this celebration of Chicago’s growth and success in the tech world. Mentor of the Year winner Troy Henikoff of Excelerate Labs likened the success of Silicon Valley to a flywheel, whose momentum picked up several years ago and continues to recycle into more success for new companies.

“It took Chicago a long time to get the flywheel going,” Henikoff said, but now it’s on a roll as investors continue to sink money back into Chicago’s new companies. “I think it’s a combination of the capital, the mentorship, the support that’s all finally coming together and gathering momentum.”

That momentum is inspiring to many local entrepreneurs, some of whom eloquently extolled its virtues last night.

“This is f---ing incredible,” Matt Maloney said as he accepted the award for CEO of the year. “When Mike [Evans] and I started GrubHub back in 2004, this community didn’t exist. The community, though it was nascent when we started, has grown and amplified over the years and it’s been really exciting to watch it grow.” GrubHub also won Breakthrough Digital Company.

John Seebeck, Vice President of ecommerce at Crate & Barrel, said, “We have to be plugged in to what’s in the mind of young people, young companies.” Seebeck finds this important both for discovering ideas for his own customers, as well as for finding services that would help his own business. “We think we can be potential customers for a lot of young companies. We want to help young organizations.”

After the final awards were handed out and speeches concluded, the majority of the crowd hung around to mingle, celebrate and connect—or perhaps reconnect. The laughter and palpable excitement exemplified the soul of the event. On Thursday night, the Moxie Awards, this communal celebration of progress, propelled this community out of fledgling status into hyper drive as Chicago races to cement its place among the great tech cities in America.

For a full list of Moxie Awards Winners, click here.