The Launch

The concept for i.c. stars was created in 1998 by Sandee Kastrul and Leslie Beller. Sandee had seen one of her most talented students from her teaching years working for minimum wage as a housekeeper in a Chicago hotel. Her chance encounter made her wonder what she could do to make sure underprivileged workers could meet their fullest potential. She wanted to create opportunities for people who were highly talented but lacked career opportunities because of their socioeconomic background.

Sandee and Leslie knew that the information technology field offered a lot of employment opportunities with the continued rise of dotcoms. Sandee also discovered years earlier that children from low income areas that lacked desirable opportunities were overall better equipped with a high level of critical thinking skills developed by overcoming adversity. These disadvantaged children could more easily solve the math and science formulas presented to them and the IT industry was in need of natural born problem solvers.

Together they spent the next 18 months researching technology training programs, traveling across the United States and looking at other non-for-profit organizations. At the same time, Sandee developed a project-based learning model for i.c. stars and Leslie built a strong base of financial support with the help of Brigid McGrath and Nathan Paige, both founding i.c.stars board members. Dave Ormesher, CEO of closerlook donated office space to i.c.stars from 2000-2007, that included Internet access, a phone system, unlimited sodas and encouragement and volunteer support, allowing i.c.stars to officially launch its workforce development program in 2000.

In 2000, i.c. stars trained its first set of information technology students over a rigorous 12-week program that included business leadership and career readiness skills and job shadowing opportunities. Leslie continued building a network of technology and start-up leaders, focusing heavily on public relations and creating a strategic partnership with the Society for Information Management (SIM) thanks to the volunteer efforts of Tony McDonald, Ergin Uskup and Marge Hayes. This shift to fortune 500 companies from technology start-ups led to financial and employment support from Fortune 500 companies. i.c.stars was able to survive the 2001 dotcom crash as a result of the SIM partnership. Leslie also fostered a relationship with Steve and Harvey Miller, founder of Quill. Steve and the Harvey L. Miller Family Foundation began a multi-year grant for i.c.stars in 2001 that continues today.

Eric Lannert transitioned from a volunteer to a staff position in January 2001 to help develop the business operations and the technology training for the i.c.stars workforce development program. That summer i.c.stars entered a period of strategic planning, revisiting the mission and vision, as it became evident that program graduates required ongoing support and career opportunities. Additionally, the assessment process and training were revised to focus on better identifying and developing resilient participants with the attitude and aptitude for community leadership.

i.c.stars soon hosted its first-ever event Capitalize of Illinois with SIM, bringing together Chicago-area chief information officers to discuss new industry trends. A second event was planned when Greg Gerber of John Buck and an i.c.stars board member positioned their annual commercial real estate benefit to support i.c.stars. The source of revenue inspired i.c.stars to offer many events throughout the year and serve as the primary source for funding its training program.

As i.c.stars became known in the Chicago IT marketplace, support for its unique technology and leadership skills training program gained more support. i.c.stars developed two corporate partnerships, one with United Stationers who was the first to offer i.c.stars participants hands-on experience in an IT environment and one with AT&T who wanted a program to help them achieve their community relations goals with Chicago Public Schools and business development goals with CIOs.

The organization also received its first recurring corporate sponsorship through Hewitt Associates and its first foundation grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation. The funding from Hewitt Associates allowed i.c.stars to hire an event management company for a second Capitalize on Illinois event in May 2004. i.c.stars Co-Chair of Community Events, Ellen Barry, successfully brought nearly 300 high tech industry leaders to the event.

The Growth Years

By 2005, i.c.stars had earned dozens of annual corporate sponsorships, which transitioned into corporate partnerships by the next year. Instead of simple event signage for sponsoring organizations, company CIOs wanted to engage with future IT talent and began to provide support through volunteer opportunities.

The i.c.stars training program continued to evolve and grow. At the recommendation of a client, i.c.stars started to pilot a social enterprise model (at the time called Bridges) as a scaling mechanism for jobs and revenue. Dirk Mueller led the effort and modeled it loosely on a program he operated in South Africa for finance graduates. Dave Edelstein of Siemens and Perry Cliburn of Hewitt Associates offered advice on the strategic planning process and helped define the market need in Fortune 500 organizations.

The first model of the Bridges program allowed i.c.stars to be a temp agency and provide graduates to companies on a contract basis. A small portion of the billable rate went back to the training program to help fund the next training cycle. Additionally, i.c.stars began to develop a partnership with Consejo, a Chicago-based application development firm, where i.c.stars graduates work with senior Consejo developers to deliver custom .NET applications to CIO organizations. Lastly, SIM Chicago Chapter contracted i.c.stars to have graduates manage marketing communications like newsletters, the website, the event registration system, and metrics reporting on an ongoing basis.

Over the following few years, the organization successfully doubled its capacity, offering four training sessions a year instead of two, and more than doubling the number of graduates per year. i.c.stars board members became active in building a client base and graduates were being placed in positions at local businesses and corporations.

The growth years proved the premise that teaching technology and leadership skills together—to a driven and innovative talent pool who consequently earned little more than a high school diploma—mobilized the development of solutions in our communities. i.c.stars was creating agents of change, young community leaders who wanted things to be better for others as i.c.stars had made things better for them.