Chicago Tech Academy is not your average high school. Tucked away in Pilsen, it might look like a typical Chicago Public School–fluorescent lighting, teachers busy moving students from one class to another, students in “Chi Tech” shirts, locker-lined hallways. But once you step inside a classroom, you will immediately see that this is not the case. You’re surrounded by innovative minds in the most unlikely of places.

Finding the undiscovered talent

Something unique is happening at Chi Tech Academy. It’s where the next generation of tech leaders and entrepreneurs are being groomed. And they’re coming from somewhere you’d least expect it: the inner city of Chicago.

As the daughter of a retired CPS teacher and department chair, I grew up hearing firsthand how education has failed to teach kids the basic skills they will need to survive in the real world. It’s a problem that our country faces as a whole, and a serious one that we need to fix if we have any chance of continuing to innovate and grow.

But here in our own backyard, we have a high school that’s challenging this notion much more than others, by teaching students how to build actual businesses.

Providing the tools and network needed to change the norm

In addition to learning normal subjects like English and math, these high school students–who mainly come from underprivileged neighborhoods in Chicago–are learning how to code, build apps, and launch startups. Many of the teachers have quit their industry jobs to join in the movement to help these young students gain the skills and resources to become the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

This past year, Lightbank, a leading venture capital firm in Chicago, partnered with Chicago Tech Academy to create “Launch,” an after-school program dedicated to preparing students to take their entrepreneurial ideas to market by teaching them how to develop, pitch, and fund their tech startups. Lightbank colleagues and I visited the school biweekly throughout the year–as have other members in the Chicago tech community–to help the students build out their business plans. It’s the same guidance process that we might use with well-funded companies in our own portfolio: We dig in, get our hands dirty and (hopefully) help them realize what’s necessary to get their company to realize its full potential.

The difference is that these students are about fifteen or sixteen years old and, for the most part, have no network of advisors, board members, fellow entrepreneurs, or other resources available to help them do this. Yet they are so eager and driven, fully realizing and believing in the opportunity available to them.

Providing a platform for the “hidden” to be heard

A few months ago, the students came to our office and sat in on real pitches from our own Lightbank startup founders. A few weeks ago, the tables were turned. They were back for their own pitches.

Four sophomores delivered eight-minute pitches to a panelist of judges of investors, successful entrepreneurs, and Chicago tech leaders. And their businesses solve real problems—here is a quick run down of the ideas they pitched:

  • Adam Kint won the competition with a price-comparison scanning app and review aggregator for in-store shopping.
  • Marcus Hayes is building a mobile fitness app with personal workouts at a low cost.
  • Kennedy Ramirez is developing a thumbprint-enabled, secure credit card to protect against identity theft
  • Gabe Reyes is set to take on Comcast with high-speed, affordable Internet for the Chicagoland area.
  • Tony Cao was unable to attend the pitch event, but is working on a mobile app that helps Chicago tourists buy CTA passes and navigate the city’s public transportation system.

As you can see, these ideas are as real, fundable, and scalable as any startup you hear about in Silicon Valley.

Turning “someday” into right now

While the barriers to entrepreneurship are significant for low-income minority students, I’m continuously impressed by the vision, inspiration, and dedication of the ChiTech staff in connecting students with leaders in the Chicago tech scene.

These students approach the tech world with an entirely different background and context on life that will make a critical impact on our society. If we want to keep our innovation engine going, we have to keep disrupting the way we’ve traditionally done things before. This is the first step in breaking the cycle, and it’s happening now.

On June 15th, Chicago Tech Academy is celebrating the graduation of their founding class of seniors. Seventy students will walk across the stage and enter the world with a real foundation in what it takes to succeed.

May startup life be bright for many of them, as they continue to build incredible startups in the future.