Nonprofit startup teaches tech, inspires innovation

This nonprofit startup uses tech to empower communities and inspire a new generation of innovators. Meet Emile Cambry, the entrepreneur behind Blue1647 in our latest Faces Of Chicago.

CHICAGO — Silicon Valley is constantly on the hunt for the next startup with the power to disrupt entire industries (and make investors rich).

But inside what was once the world’s largest macaroni factory, on the Southwest Side of Chicago, a new kind of incubator aims to start up entire communities instead.

BLUE1647 offers many of the same things as a tech incubator in the Valley, from classes to office space to networking opportunities. Except BLUE is open to the public, and its focus is on building economic opportunity instead of shareholder value.

“If you don’t have the digital skills you need a place to get started, and the first place to get started for a lot of people is us,” founder Emile Cambry said.

Since it began in 2013, BLUE1647 has offered classes to people of all levels in everything from coding to design. It’s all part of the nonprofit’s mission of giving people the tools to fill the jobs of the future. And create new opportunities in their own communities.

“Traditionally, when you think about certain communities it’s only social service; It’s only about, ‘let me give you something,’” Cambry said.

Instead of seeing people who live in under-resourced communities as “liabilities,” Cambry said, BLUE treats them as assets instead.

“You invest in assets, you improve assets; you think about it as an emerging market and think about what that means. For communities it’s just a completely different mindset,” Cambry said.

Peeking into the window of BLUE’s original, namesake location at 1647 S. Blue Island Ave. in Pilsen, Cambry reflected on the work it took to build a nonprofit startup from scratch. From painting the walls to hustling for funding, they did it all. They worked until they dropped, sleeping on bean bag chairs over more than 200 nights.

“Even looking back, if I knew it would have been this difficult, I would’ve been very hard-pressed to move forward,” he said.

Cambry got his MBA from Northwestern and was working as a professor at North Park University when he decided to leave an otherwise comfortable career and pursue his own moonshot. From its initial location, BLUE has grown to include a national network of technology and entrepreneurship centers, including pop-ups in Compton, CA, St. Louis and even Haiti.

Among the graffiti-decorated halls of its new location, BLUE hosts rooms for trainings, co-working spaces and bare-bones offices made out of refurbished materials.They’re small, but they have enough space for a desk and stacks of papers. Just enough for new businesses to get their foot in the door.

“What Silicon Valley to me is a mindset,” Cambry said. “We wanted to bring that spirit of entrepreneurship, the spirit of opportunity.”

As BLUE has grown, so too has its ambition. Just as tech incubators connect new startups with investors, the latest phase of BLUE aims to give community members the ability to band together and form cooperatives able to fund new investments in their own communities. Like crowdfunding to bring in a new grocery store, which community investors would still have a stake in.

“Nothing is more powerful than the opportunity to build something big,” Cambry said. “It’s interesting to see how education and economic development can get come together and hopefully change communities.”