URBANA — It's eight months until graduation, but Jeffrey Lale, a computer engineering major at the University of Illinois, is already weighing offers from technology companies.
The senior from Wilmette has spoken with almost every major tech company you've heard of and he's even turned down one company's offer so far.
"The West Coast has so many opportunities. And Chicago, as the technology startup culture grows, it's exciting," he said.
Lale and hundreds of other UI students stopped by the UI's Siebel Center for Computer Science on Tuesday to learn more about the start-up companies that have come to call Chicago home in recent years. Most of the recruiters who visit the College of Engineering campus are familiar names — Microsoft, Apple, Cisco, Intel.
But on Tuesday, Lale wanted to learn more about lesser-known tech startups like Analyte, Braintree, Threadless and over 30 others who made the trip to Urbana from Chicago.
Graduates of the UI's top-ranked programs in computer engineering, computer science and electrical engineering are sought after by recruiters from around the globe, and it's not uncommon, as computer science department head Rob Rutenbar said, to find recruiters camping out in the corridors of the Siebel Center.
"We've had a lot of success hiring students out from Illinois universities," said Mike Evans, co-founder and chief operating officer of GrubHub in Chicago.
But too many UI computer science, computer engineering and electrical engineering students overlook Chicago as a place to launch their careers, said Andy Singer, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the UI's Technology Entrepreneur Center.
"They're starving for engineering talent," Singer said of Chicago's tech companies.
For years, the UI and the city of Chicago — "two fabulous, great, globally significant institutions" — were leading parallel lives, Rutenbar said.
A delegation of representatives from the technology and startup world in Chicago visited the Urbana campus Tuesday to give the following message, delivered in person by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
"We have to close the 140-mile distance between us," Emanuel said. For too long, the futures of Chicago and the university were seen as separate, he said.
Emanuel told the audience of students, faculty and staff he wanted Chicago to become the place for graduates to build their careers, launch companies and grow the tech economy there.
Based on a recent survey about post-college plans, about 16 percent of UI computer science students accepted a job in the Chicago area and about 24 percent of computer science students joined a company in Silicon Valley, according to the College of Engineering's career services offices. About 16 percent of computer engineering students accepted a position in the Chicago area and about 16 percent took a job in Silicon Valley. About 27 percent of electrical engineering students take a job in the Chicago area; about 13 percent take a job in Silicon Valley, according to the UI.
Forget Silicon Valley in California, New York City's Silicon Alley, Singapore's tech community and other destinations, Emanuel told students Tuesday. Chicago, he said, has a vibrant culture scene, quality-of-life (and lots of bike lanes), venture capital opportunities, and growing support and communities for start-ups such as 1871, the business incubator in the Merchandise Mart.
At Emanuel's side for a panel discussion about Chicago's tech community were Evans, Eric Lunt from BrightTag (and formerly FeedBurner, which was acquired by Google), and Brad Keywell from the venture fund Lightbank and chairman of the Illinois Innovation Council. All expressed enthusiasm for the startup "ecosystem" in Chicago and how things have developed in recent years, including more mentorship, meet-ups and more.
"There's (venture) capital, there's talent and there's demand ... and there's demand for risk-taking entrepreneurs," Keywell said.
After the panel discussion, students were invited to meet with staff from 39 tech companies from Chicago.
Tuesday's event was the first Chicago-specific recruiting event on campus for Chicago tech companies "and it won't be the last," Singer said.
Next week a group of about 100 students from Illinois universities will board a bus for a tour of the city to learn more about Chicago's tech scene, he said.