Since we first opened our doors a decade ago, our community of innovators has made incredible strides, from launching products & solutions that have changed their industries to growing their businesses into the next unicorn. 

Since the moment JB Pritzker first sketched the idea for 1871 on a napkin, we’ve existed to inspire, equip, & support innovators that are building extraordinary businesses. Today, we proudly serve the entire maturity curve, from idea to Fortune 50. 

Here’s a look into our story of innovation 10 years in the making:


From early days to record growth

Even a decade later, it’s still an emotional sight to see the 1871 sign being raised at theMART, our longtime partner & home. But this was just the start of an unforgettable journey.

Howard Tullman joined the team in 2013 as the new CEO following Kevin Willer’s extraordinary tenure where he turned the idea on a napkin into a reality! Howard, a successful serial entrepreneur, played a pivotal role in growing 1871’s influence in the tech world by scaling the organization’s programming, resources, & network of support for founders. During this time, 1871 became a space for innovators to connect, collaborate, & learn how to build their businesses in a way that will create jobs right here in Chicago.

Among our new programs was WISTEM—now known as WMNtech Founders—our long-running leadership development  and coaching initiative devoted to equipping women tech founders with the resources and support they need to thrive. In 2015, we welcomed in our very first cohort, which included an incredible group of founders who’ve gone on to great success such as Julie Novack of PartySlate and more. WMNtech, which Forbes praised for its work to “help more women enter the technology sector and boost their entrepreneurial success,” just graduated  its 14th cohort!


Expanding our footprint

From welcoming leaders across the tech & civic communities to our first steps toward an international future, this period of time saw a number of firsts for us. 

By 2016, 1871 had become the place where fortunate collisions became game-changing opportunities and where aspiring entrepreneurs & top tech & civic leaders came together. Our team has had the honor of welcoming some of the most famous world leaders to our space, including former US President Bill Clinton, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Youtube co-founder Steve Chen, Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, & many more. 

We introduced the next development in our affinity programming a year later with the introduction of LatinX. Run in partnership with the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (IHCC), this program provides tailored coaching & support to help Latin entrepreneurs thrive, and is now getting ready to welcome its 9th cohort!

During this time, 1871 also expanded our footprint with the addition of 2.0 space in 2014 & 3.0 space in 2016. The expansions provided new opportunities for members to collaborate & find their home in 1871, with 3.0 connecting two floors & providing  an additional 41,000 square feet. The move, which Howard Tullman said in his 2018 announcement, allowed us to “serve more members, offer more educational programs, facilitate new opportunities for incubators and accelerators, and ultimately welcome more individuals and organizations to the innovation economy.”

In 2018, Betsy Ziegler stepped in as the new CEO, bringing her extensive experience from Northwestern University and McKinsey and Company to 1871. In her comments to the Chicago Tribune, Betsy noted that “the entrepreneurs are the heartbeat of the organization; they are why 1871, exists, so my first priority is to them.” Betsy has inspired an incredible new chapter of growth for our community by expanding our reach around the globe & creating a space where everyone can find the resources & support they need—all while keeping our members & their successes as the heart of everything we do.

Under Betsy’s leadership, the team launched PYROS—1871’s structured yet flexible roadmap of support. PYROS empowers members by providing a 12-week series of workshops, share outs, deep dives, and one-to-one mentoring built to help founders navigate startup fundamentals and propel them forward through every business milestone, from idea stage through product-market fit.

These innovations paid off, because in 2019 we were named the #1 Private Business Incubator in the World by UBI Global! 


Where paths intersect from anywhere in the world

The past few years have seen some of our biggest steps forward yet, beginning in early 2020 with the acquisition of the Illinois Technology Association (ITA). As a result of the move, we welcomed their community of growth stage companies & officially expanded our network of support to include the full maturity, from idea to Fortune 50. The move made us one of the only organizations in the country that brings together educators, VCs, angel investors, & innovators from every stage of business development into a single, unified community. 

Through the acquisition of ITA, we continued on & expanded the Women Leadership Accelerator—now known as WMNtech Leaders. This four-month program is devoted to cultivating the next generation of women leaders and propelling them into roles of influence through dedicated education, coaching, and mentoring. We’re now in cohort 9, offering two specific tracks in both technical and market-facing roles.

The world significantly changed only a month later when the COVID-19 pandemic upended the way people connect & work. We went virtual immediately, shifting our whole delivery model to online, empowering innovators from anywhere in the world to build their business and find their network of support. These were just the beginning steps of a new path forward, and today our community is rooted in Chicago with a reach that spans the globe!

In early 2021, we announced two more major acquisitions of Catapult Chicago & hub88, which brought together our communities, expanded our physical footprint in Chicago’s Western suburbs, & deepened our expertise in emerging tech. As Betsy noted, these important moves would help “accelerate our members’ journeys across the maturity curve and embrace a deep technical focus in our programming, our physical spaces, and across the broader community.” 

We also expanded our affinity offerings with our first cohort of BLKtech, which helps members unlock a new world of opportunities among an intimate cohort of peers & mentors designed for Black-led startups. This program was made possible by our partners Verizon, William Blair, and others & we look forward to welcoming many more cohorts in the future. 

The past few years have certainly highlighted the need for a community where people can find support & others who will champion their success. But with the new hybrid model of work, it’s never been more important to embrace new ways of connecting. In September 2022, we launched 1871 VX, our immersive, virtual reality campus that empowers members to come together, socialize, & learn in one active, virtual space. From expanding our roadmap of support to connecting top level talent & leading tech companies at our first-ever virtual job fair, our 1871 VX platform is the latest innovation that allows our members to come together anytime & anywhere.

A lot has changed in the past 10 years, but our mission stays the same. We promise to continue to inspire, equip, & support innovators who are building extraordinary businesses in their backyard, regardless of where that backyard is. 

Together, we can build a brighter, more equitable future for our communities. 

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