Father-son duo behind unicorn SMS Assist starts new, small-firm focused consultancy Theron


The father-son duo who led a service contracting company to unicorn status is launching a new firm to provide one-on-one consulting to often-overlooked tech and commercial retail and real-estate businesses.

The new company is called Theron (pronounced THER-in) Technology Solutions to reflect the Greek word for “hunter” as well as a trait many entrepreneurs may appreciate — untamed.

“Theron is about hunting for the right solution,” said Alex Rothman, who with his father, Michael Rothman, grew SMS Assist to become one of the few companies valued at $1 billion after Goldman Sach Investment Partners’ $150 million investment in the company in June 2016.

SMS contracts with companies that offer maintenance services for commercial businesses, from electrical to plumbing to heating and cooling. The company says it saves customers 10 percent to 20 percent by leveraging technology to connect companies that need maintenance services with those who provide them. That takes advantage of scale and efficiencies.

Theron aims to do the same with consulting services by offering tailored, one-on-one tech and money-saving help for technology companies as well as law firms and commercial retail and real estate firms, said Alex Rothman, who will lead Theron as founder and CEO.

The Rothmans will continue to serve on SMS Assist’s board of directors – Alex as a member and Michael as chair – after handing the CEO’s role to Taylor Rhodes, a leader at cloud-computing company Rackspace.

He declined to name clients, but said he and his father have financed Theron and intend to leverage what they see as a gap in vital services.

“The goal is not just to provide tech development – not just critiquing,” Alex said. Instead, Theron aims to stay with its client company from start to finish and watch how it uses the recommended technology and services.

“We want to help engage partners with companies so they can be creative, nimble and solve their pain points in the most economical way,” he said.

Theron, with offices at 300 N. LaSalle, employs 13 full-time staffers, with a goal of hiring 100 more in the next 18 months.

Will Theron follow SMS Assist as the next rumored tech IPO to grab headlines in Chicago?

“We’re looking to scale this expeditiously,” Alex said.



G2Crowd gains experienced tech marketer


Business-software review firm G2Crowd has enticed a senior marketing leader from tech innovator HubSpot as its new chief marketing officer.

Ryan Bonnici, G2Crowd’s chief marketing officer, starts work Tuesday. Besides HubSpot, he has served as a senior marketing leader at Salesforce, Microsoft and ExactTarget.

In his most recent position as senior director of global marketing for HubSpot, he helped create triple-digit growth for the company’s marketing-generated sales revenue.

“Having exceeded a quarter of a million reviews in less than five years, we are accelerating faster than many predicted,” said Tim Handorf, CEO and co-founder of G2 Crowd. “With growth comes a need to maintain a laser-focus on how we build our brand. Our vision is for G2 Crowd to be an industry standard for B2B buying and a dynamic marketing strategy is a foundational pillar to achieving that goal.

In his new role, Bonnici will oversee planning, development and execution of the company’s marketing programs, with special focus on growing G2 Crowd’s brand. He will focus on achieving aggressive growth targets and evangelizing the company’s efforts to revolutionize B2B buying.


Food startups win support from Chicago-based incubator


Marketing specialist

While health and good bacteria may be the first thing most people think about when they hear Chobani Greek yogurt, the company is also a leader in giving Chobani Supports Chicago-based Food Start-Ups -- a helping hand to food start-ups that positively impact our health.

Chobani LLC, led by CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, has announced that its Chicago-based Incubator Program is supporting seven new startups with a $25,000 equity-free grant and mentoring. The Food Incubator is designed to help nurture, support and celebrate like-minded food start-ups that positively affect our world and have business models rooted in social good. The company’s vision is to help shape the food industry of tomorrow, to provide better food for all. 

The Chicago-based start-ups are: Chloe’s Fruit, Farmer Willie’s, Grainful, LoveTheWild, Pique Tea Crystals, Rumi Spice, and Snow Monkey.

This second group to be chosen for the incubator program features innovative products like plant-based ice cream, a low-sugar, low-calorie beer alternative, a healthier frozen fruit pop, and new ideas based on foods that have been around for years, including oats, saffron and seafood.

According to Ulukaya, “Chobani tasted hundreds of products and met with entrepreneurs across the country and the world. These companies have something special and unique, including the ability to make big changes in American supermarkets and give more people better options. I can’t wait to have these companies at Chobani to see how we can help them on their journey and welcome them to our family.”

The second Chobani Food Incubator class will run from September 2017 to December 2017, and be based at Chobani’s sales and marketing offices in New York City.

Included are Chloe’s Fruit, which is a combination of fruit, water, and organic cane sugar. This new start-up offers frozen Soft Serve Fruit and low-calorie Fruit Pops that are gluten free, vegan, non-GMO and dairy free.

·       Farmer Willie’s makes gluten, craft ginger beer with less sugar and calories than a glass of wine. In fact, the ginger beer won best in show at the New York International Beer Festival in 2017.

·       Grainful brings bold tasting foods at an affordable price with meal solutions centered around high-protein grains and clean ingredients.

·       LoveTheWild has come up with a three-step culinary experience that combines sustainable frozen fish paired with handcrafted sauce cubes and parchment paper.

·       Pique Tea Crystals is made from purely organic super-plants, free of sugar, additives, and preservatives as well as active ingredients not present in tea bags or bottled teas.

·       Rumi Spice works with Afghan farmers to import high-quality saffron and saffron products to restaurants and retail stores across the United States. The company was co-founded by Army veterans who served combat tours overseas, Rumi Spice has hired almost 400 Afghan women, has 90 farmers in its network, and three processing facilities.

·       Snow Monkey has a unique take on ice cream as a nutritious treat with all-natural, plant-based ingredients. Their Superfood Ice Treats are vegan, free from major allergens like dairy, gluten, soy and nuts, and is packed with 21 grams of protein per pint.

See video at 



Dreamers gain free legal help--online and in Little Village--with DACA renewal paperwork



Young, undocumented immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” who need to prepare their DACA renewal applications before their legal protections expire can get free immigration paperwork help online from now until the imposed Oct. 5 DACA deadline.

Illinois Legal Aid Online is offering the service through its web site, www.illinoislegalaid.org at https://www.illinoislegalaid.org/legal-information/daca-federal-dream-act-and-deferred-action, to Dreamers nationwide, including the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 in Illinois who are eligible to file for renewal of their DACA status. The legal aid group is working with Chicago-based software firm Road to Status (www.roadtostatus.com) to operate the service.

“This online immigration service has unlimited capacity to help people any time they need it,” said Lisa Colpoys, executive director of Illinois Legal Aid Online.

President Trump announced on Sept. 5 a gradual end to the legislation that protects Dreamers from deportation – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program – but gave Congress six months to figure out how to replace it.

Through the Oct. 5 DACA deadline, anyone who completes the DACA renewal application via the Illinois Legal Aid Online site will also receive a free immigration attorney review of their DACA renewal application prior to filing (See  https://app.roadtostatus.com/mc_wizards/29092/mc_wizard_questions/70 ). Road to Status is providing its software and the additional attorney review services for free through the partnerships through the Oct. 5 deadline via their network partner law firms.

Separately, the Little Village Chamber of Commerce is partnering with Road to Status to offer a free DACA renewal workshop for online and in person DACA renewal help (see https://www.roadtostatus.com/littlevillage/) from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. on Sept. 22 at the Central States SER career center at 3948 W. 26th St., Suite 213, Chicago.

For more details visit https://www.roadtostatus.com/littlevillage/.



Chicagoans get Kickstarter guru's insights into making it work



Chicagoans yearning to see their ideas soar to final products and crowdfunding success get to hear from a Kickstarter pioneer and successful maker on Sept. 16.

That’s when Craighton Berman will offer tips on how to launch a product from idea to completion at a workshop at the Lost Arts workspace at 1001 N. Branch St.

The 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. session aims to give designers and innovators a step-by-step guide on conceiving a product idea, making it in a small batch, creating community backing, planning a marketing campaign and launching a successful Kickstarter project.

The process is much more than making money, says Berman, who has spearheaded six Kickstarter campaigns.

“Kickstarter is about marketing, getting community around you and meeting the right people,” he said.

Berman cited as a major turning point in his experience garnering more than 1,000 people to support his launch of a manual coffee maker made of glass. The sculptural product, equal parts aesthetics and functional, required a complex hand-made process that required Berman to go overseas for the first time to find a manufacturer.

“That was a big learning experience. It was really an empowering and intense experience,” he said.

It also taught Berman that a successful idea is rooted and bound in creativity, requiring an innovative idea for a product you won’t find in an everyday retail store. And that idea must be backed by a solid business plan.

He’s excited to talk with Chicagoans about making their ideas work, too, partly because he has been able to set up his own North Park neighborhood design studio. The business — Manual (Manual.is) — designs and makes products for the “slow” food and beverage culture.

“Chicago has a deep history, especially on the corporate side, of industrial design, not to mention our architectural design,” he said, explaining why he believes Kickstarter sees an active community here.

“Though Chicago is a big city, you can afford to take chances, just like I’ve set up a studio in a storefront where I can run pop-up shops so people can see the products I’m developing,” he said. “I don’t think I could do that in New York or San Francisco.”

“There’s also a spirit in Chicago — a community,” he said.

Look no farther than the workshop meeting space itself — the Lost Arts space is the brainchild of Chicago native and Kickstarter co-founder Charles Adler, who describes it as “a blend of laboratory, workshop, atelier, incubator, school and playground rooted in a legacy of interdisciplinary spaces like the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College.”

Tickets cost $25; students’ discounted rate is $10.


The workshop will be followed by a community dinner from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and a design meet-up and resource fair from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.







Chicagoans get to vet a shared vet service and other innovations



Since Eyal Zukovsky was 8 years old, he knew he wanted to start new ventures and build new concepts.

He even sought to one-up his older brothers by designing a system that his dad could use to monitor the time his teen-aged siblings talked on the phone, since their socializing resulted in big charges 25 years ago.

“In those days, a meter on phone calls was innovative,” said the 33-year-old entrepreneur who uses a WeWork shared space in Tel Aviv, Israel, as headquarters for his latest venture.

That venture – VetMyHood — acts as a Via of Vets. The web and mobile platform connects dog owners to veterinarian services  at a 35-percent cost savings, on average. The idea started after Zukovsky adopted Bella, a half-border collie, half Belgian shepherd mix, who Zukovsky takes to work and loves as a new family member.

In Israel, dog owners pay a yearly subscription of $200 to $300 (U.S. dollars) to subscribe to veterinary services that cover the dog’s vaccinations to protect against rabies, parkworm and other diseases.

Zukovsky researched the cost of those vaccinations and found that the actual cost of the materials was far less. So he decided to set up a “ride share” of sorts by offering veterinary house calls to any group of dog owners who paid to negotiate a time for their dog to get vaccinated. The yearly cost is $130 U.S. dollars.

So far, Zukovsky has registered six vets who make the vaccination house calls, and the service, called “VetMyHood,” also includes cat owners.

“We want to create ‘packs’ of pet owners,” he said. “They get better deals, whether it’s for vet treatments or dog food or dog walkers.”

He aims to reach 5 percent of Israeli dog owners, or 25,000 people, by the end of the 2018.

Zukovsky’s startup is one of six hailing from the Coller School of Management’s MBA program at Tel Aviv University. The university chose the six to travel to Chicago for a new, two-week acceleration program hosted by 1871, Chicago’s tech startup hub.

The acceleration program, which kicks off Sept. 5, is designed to engage and encourage a new generation of innovators from Israel.

The IDEAS (Israel, Digital, Entrepreneurs, Arts and Science) Immersion program, hosted by Tel Aviv University, partners with North American-based tech, entertainment and scientific business leaders, angel investors and venture capitalists to serve as mentors.

The other startups are:

·     PANCHO: A mobile app that connects tourists with emergency services in any location. Represented by Moran Sverdlov and Daniel Yom Tov.

·     TFRESH: An on-the-go toothbrush/breath freshener. Represented by Hila Afriat Lauterbach.

·     PRforALL: Software that enables targeted queries for media personalities. Represented by Mor Aviram and Tamar Shlimak.  

·     KINDR: A daycare finding platform for parents. Represented by Aviv Lazar. 

·     Castor: A three-dimensional button that creates gaming characters, merchandise and do-it-yourself items. Represented by Omer Blaier.

The entrepreneurs will present their ideas at a showcase event that’s open to the public at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 15 (See IDEAS Immersion. Advance registration is required. To attend, please contact Nadine Cohen at ncohen@aftau.org or call 773-562-5474.

The international exchange shows it’s a big world with lots of cities that warmly welcome startups.

A new survey by London-based Nestpick critiqued 85 cities worldwide to rank the best ones for quality of life for those employed by the tech startup industry.

One benefactor of a new startup is Chicago, which ranked 44th overall. The top cities based on salaries, cost of living, quality of life and other factors placed Singapore No. 1, noted for its health care, safety and an ecosystem full of professional opportunities; Helsinki, Finland No. 2, scoring well for social security and quality of life, and San Francisco No. 3.

Tel Aviv ranked No. 6, placing just behind No. 4 Berlin, Germany, and No. 5 Stockholm, Sweden.






Chicago tech training and STEM education get a boost to focus on the underserved



A Chicago Public high school known for helping students get valuable technology internships is getting crowdfunding help from Chicago’s tech leaders and entrepreneurs.

Business-software review firm G2Crowd is spearheading the effort by asking its users to write a review in exchange for a $10 contribution. The initiative, launched on Aug. 1, has raised $5,000. The goal is to collect 10,000 reviews and raise $100,000.

Why the creative online funding campaign?

Because the school, Chicago Technology Academy or ChiTech, faces a $450,000 budget shortfall. The dilemma resonated with the city’s technorati, who struggle with a talent shortfall, particularly in finding young people from distressed inner-city neighborhoods with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.

The funding gap results from the difference between the true cost to educate a ChiTech student -- $14,000 – and the $10,275 per student that Chicago Public Schools and the state and federal governments allocate, the fundraising advocates say.

G2Crowd started the fundraising campaign largely because it’s part of the firm’s mission to build opportunities for young people to train for technology and STEM careers, and to keep them here in Chicago, said Adrienne Weissman, G2Crowd’s chief customer and growth officer. Weissman has held a variety of sales, advertising-account and innovation-leader roles at AOL, Google and LinkedIn and at Starz and Showtime networks.

“We’re trying to hone in on a school that helps students who may not come from a background where they’ve gotten the financial and individual support to succeed,” said Weissman.

The goal to raise money for scholarships and to keep the school’s programs running is driven by concern that middle America is disappearing as the gap between the haves and have-nots keeps growing, she said.

“We are disruptors by nature,” Weissman said. “We’re at a place where we’re trying solve problems by employing a more diverse group of people in an environment that tends to be mostly white males.”

“It feels really good to drive, lead and impact change in a big way, and improve the conversation around diversity in tech,” Weissman said.

The school’s 300 students comprise 76 percent African-American, 19 percent Latino and 3 percent white, with 91 percent qualifying for free or reduced price lunch. Students attend from 38 zip codes throughout the city.

The issue is a national and increasingly dire one.

The U.S. Labor Department predicts that technology jobs will grow faster than the average for all jobs at a rate of 12 percent this decade, with some of the most in-demand jobs for computer systems analyst, software developer, and database administrator, according to U.S. News and World Report.

In response to that demand, students and those looking to change careers can now access a new organization, the CompTIA's Association of Information Technology Professionals to help develop this workforce.

By offering TechTalent as a clearinghouse for technology jobs, the search engine includes detailed data on market demand for specific skills employers are looking for, as well as access to more than 1,200 online courses through a partnership with Lynda.com.

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers and North America's Building Trades Unions is teaming up to promote apprenticeships to distribute information to high-school guidance counselors to advance technical education.

With an expected expansion of infrastructure projects, apprenticeship opportunities offered by trade sectors offer lesson plans to help students build their careers toward high-quality jobs.


An ideas lab startup is playing a key role in creating visions for future extensions of the newly revived Chicago Riverwalk



A privately sponsored startup — an ideas lab — is playing a key role in creating visions for future extensions of the newly revived Chicago Riverwalk.

The extensions would take the Riverwalk past downtown and the South Loop to Chinatown’s Ping Tom Memorial Park.

Visions for the expansion created by nine architectural firms will be unveiled Sept. 16 at the Expo 72 gallery space at 72 E. Randolph St.

The architectural firms’ creative plans are part of an effort called the Chicago Urban River Edge Ideas Lab, a joint effort of the City of Chicago and the Metropolitan Planning Council. A teaser page for the Ideas Lab is at www.ChiRiverLab.com

The project stems from the Great Rivers Chicago initiative, whose long-term goals include a river walk or trail into the south, west and north suburbs. Such an extensive trail would link the Chicago River to the Calumet and Des Plaines rivers by 2040, as outlined in the initiative’s website at http://www.greatriverschicago.com/.

The first phase of the project, to extend the downtown Riverwalk to the river’s South Branch, prompted the River Edge Ideas Lab to hire nine architectural firms to design their visions of what that might look like.  

The architectural firms are Adjaye Associates, James Corner Field Operations, Perkins+Will, Ross Barney Architects, Sasaki, Site Design, SOM, Studio Gang Architects and SWA. The ideas lab is sponsored by Comcast, the Driehaus Foundation and real-estate developer Related Midwest.

The results will be displayed to the public at the Expo 72 gallery from Sept. 16 until Jan. 7 as part of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial.

“This is a preliminary phase to get people talking,” said Josh Ellis, vice president at the Metropolitan Planning Council. “We’re interested in people’s responses. Are they excited? What aspects do they like the most?”

The project doesn’t yet have a capital budget to start work on the favorite of the nine proposals.

A river trail along on the South Branch would enable public access to the river next to the Riverline development and other new residential construction taking place just west of Dearborn Park.

Before airplane transportation vaunted O’Hare International Airport to the world’s fourth busiest in passenger traffic, Grand Central Station—on a block bounded by Harrison, Polk and Wells—served as a key entryway into Chicago, and included offices, a next-door hotel and enormous archways high enough for traffic to pass underneath. The train station’s architect, Solon Spencer Beman, designed the Pullman railroad car factory and historic landmark community on Chicago’s Far South Side.

The train station, demolished in 1971, is now a vacant plot overgrown with high grass and trees.

But it’s also a prime property, just north of two high-rise apartment developments under construction that look to transform the Printer’s Row and River City neighborhoods into a more densely populated cityscape.

The vacant lot is slated to become part of the $1.5 billion Riverline redevelopment. It is the final empty site to be redeveloped among Chicago’s six former terminal railroad stations built in the mid- to late 19th Century. Ward Miller remembers watching pheasants take flight on a grand expanse of prairie as he looked out the train window after leaving Union Station headed to Springfield.

The wildlife rustling from among the tall grass was a common sight, especially in late summer and early fall, some 20 years ago surrounding the train yards just south and west of Dearborn Park.

“The (pheasants’) wingspans were amazing, and I thought it was such an incredible sight to see in what was, at the time, an industrial area of Chicago,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, which seeks to save historic landmarks, buildings and neighborhoods.

The construction marks the second time in nearly 40 years that the neighborhoods have been eyed for high-rise living. The area, just west of the historic Prairie House Row landmark district, extends from Roosevelt on the south, Harrison on the north, Financial Place on the east and the Chicago River on the west.

Together, the two high-rises under construction would add 4,100 rental units to the neighborhood of 25,000 mostly white-collar professionals, and cost a combined $1.6 billion.

The late Mayor Jane Byrne nixed an original proposal by utopian architect Bertrand Goldberg, Marina City and Drexel Gardens’ designer, which envisioned building 72-story-high skyscrapers with sky bridges linking the towers and encompassing schools, apartments and shopping centers.

Byrne sought to keep Printer’s Row a low-density neighborhood that would attract families who otherwise would flee to the suburbs. The result: The first urban conversions of former industrial space into residential lofts and condos. This was a first for Chicago, starting in the mid-1970s, and set a precedent for River North, the West Loop, Greektown and, indeed, the nation, Miller said.

Goldberg settled for what is now River City, an S-shaped futuristic structure at 800 S. Wells that resembles a series of rippling mid-rise buildings along the south branch of the Chicago River, much like Marina City two decades earlier.

The second delay resulted from the Great Recession of 2008 and the resulting housing and construction crisis.

Developers and local residents say it’s time that high-rises fill in the property that has long laid vacant just a few blocks west of the former Dearborn Station, now an arcade of shops, offices and restaurants.

The high rises are The Alta Roosevelt, a 33-story rental high-rise with 496 units at 801 S. Financial Place, and Riverline, a 14-acre development with 3,600 homes bounded by Harrison on the north, Roosevelt on the south, Wells on the east and the Chicago River to the west.

The Alta Roosevelt, just south of Polk Street and west of the Metra rail tracks, will add a mix of studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom rentals on land that’s been used for parking lots over the years. It is slated for Fall move-ins, and includes 347 parking spaces, a swimming pool, outdoor plazas and a green space atop a three-story podium partly tucked under the tower, said Adam Lavey of project architect Pappageorge Haymes Partners.

Riverline’s construction is in its first phase, called Ancora – a 28-story tower that will house 452 apartments and a 230-vehicle parking garage. Ancora and an 18-story highrise, called Current, with 251 apartments, are slated to open in Spring 2018. The development will also include nine three-story townhouses.

Residents interviewed about the construction say they’re ready for new neighbors. They believe the area needs more restaurants, shopping choices and the enhanced property values those amenities bring.

“I think it’s great for the area, and will raise my apartment’s and others’ value,” said six-year resident Alessandra Bonasera, a 36-year-old mother strolling her 17-month-old daughter, Claire.

“I think it sets the stage for Printer’s Row to become the new Michigan Avenue with a great variety of shops and restaurants,” said Bonasera, who also has a 4-year-old son, Marco.

Namanjaba Mabula, 38, the general manager at Eleven City Diner, 1112 S. Wabash, said he’s not bothered by the construction noise near his home in the Burnham Pointe building at 730 S. Clark.

“If you live in this area, you know it’s busy, it’s noisy – it’s the city,” said Mabula, who moved to Printer’s Row from Old Town two years ago to be close to work.

Bailey Street, 20, a part-time dog walker and rising senior majoring in dance and live performance arts management, said she likes the neighborhood feel of Printer’s Row.

Street, who has lived there for three years, said she looks forward to a greater variety of restaurants and other amenities along with the apartment developments.

But long-time community activist Gail Merritt, co-founder of the Alliance for a Greener South Loop, says she is concerned that the high-rises, complete with indoor gyms and dog runs, will insulate the new residents walled off from Printer’s Row’s businesses and neighborhood.

“I’m afraid these vertical communities, with all of their self-contained amenities, are being developed to the detriment of the horizontal community,” Merritt said.

She also expressed concern that the new developments do not allow for much more green space than a walkway with green embellishments on the side, even though she noted that the greater density could well boost the use of public transportation.

“I’m personally hoping we can figure out how to wrangle more public green space out of these developments,” said Merritt, whose alliance led efforts to create a community garden just between Polk and Clark streets where Federal Street deadends.

Alderman Danny Solis (25th), whose ward includes the Riverline development, said Printer’s Row stands to benefit from the Wells-Wentworth connector, a $62 million project that will realign Wentworth Avenue between Archer Avenue and Cermak Road, and help lessen congestion from Chinatown into the Loop. The project will ultimately connect Wells to Wentworth between 18th Street and Roosevelt Road.

Solis also advocates a bridge over the Chicago River’s South Branch at Taylor Street to ease congestion at Polk and Clark, and a possible CTA train station near Clark and 16th to accommodate the growing population.


Chicago startup creates online resource for immigrants seeking legal services



A Chicago-based legal aid organization and a technology startup company have partnered in a first-of-its-kind initiative to refer immigrants to pro bono and low-cost services if they qualify.

Illinois Legal Aid Online, which connects people to legal resources when they can't afford a lawyer, has teamed up with Road to Status, a software company founded in June 2016 to help those in need gain access to immigration help regardless of their income. Road to Status provides online immigration document preparation tools and partner attorney services to individuals, businesses, attorneys and non-profits.

People who need help with immigration services may use a free online eligibility checker on the website IllinoisLegalAid.org to find out whether they’re eligible for U.S. immigration benefits.

The immigration tech site’s team of legal experts used algorithms and artificial intelligence to set up the system to identify whether users have a straightforward path to the most common benefits – United States citizenship, green cards, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) renewals, and travel parole, said John Paul Demirdjian, chief operating officer of Road to Status.

The website lets applicants go through the eligibility questions in English or Spanish from any device. Certified human linguists and translators worked alongside Road to Status’ legal and technology teams to ensure the translations of the software are contextually and legally accurate.

“We give them a result that says, based on how you’ve answered these questions, here’s the next step,” he said. “We carefully screen for underlying issues related to the applicants’ background and criminal history and warn them that attorney involvement may be recommended to proceed. And we have ‘hard stops’ in the process, if someone has committed a felony or has an outstanding issue that needs to be addressed, the system directs that person to an attorney consultation option."

The key goal is to provide access to people who fall within an enormous legal-services gap—an estimated 75 to 80 percent of people who need legal services but fail to qualify for free help, yet who cannot afford private attorneys—worth an estimated $437 million annually, according to Thomson Reuters.

“Many can’t afford $3,000 or $5,000 for the private attorney route, yet they make too much to qualify for legal aid,” Demirdjian said. “The largest underserved group makes just under the national poverty guidelines, disqualifying them from many free or low-cost resources. To solve this, a blend of technology plus people is necessary to deliver quality help at a scale that can make a difference.”

“Our company mission is to make immigration support services affordable and more accessible,” he said. “Nearly one in six people who live in America is an immigrant.”

Anyone who accesses the program online at IllinoisLegalAid.org gets 30 percent off software services they use. Low-cost attorney review services for applications completed via the service start at $99, and are conducted by a licensed immigration attorney.

The service is unveiled as protesters last weekend marched in Texas' first major protest against a border wall, according to the Associated Press. The marchers said they may have no influence over President Trump’s plan, but they hope to influence Congress members who’ve yet to approve a wall’s financing.



Chicago’s historic Ferrara Candy Co. differentiates its manufacturing roots, expanding parental leave and offering scholarships to employees’ children; how do startups respond?



Chicago’s 109-year-old Ferrara Candy Co. is upping the ante for local employers and its manufacturing rivals by expanding its maternity-leave policy to grant new parents full pay for two weeks after their new child’s birth, adoption or foster care placement.

The maker of Lemonheads, Red Hots, Trolli, Brach’s and Black Forest decided to go beyond federally mandated minimums that grant women only a portion of their pay during short-term disability when they have babies.

To implement the policy, Ferrara Candy Co. supplements the short-term disability pay that women take when they have babies so that the new moms receive 100 percent of their pay for the period of time they receive disability pay, which is normally six to eight weeks.

Under the old policy, new moms received regular short-term disability pay of 60 percent of their salaries.

New parents may also continue to take unpaid Family and Medical Leave for up to 90 days (FMLA leave runs concurrent with short-term disability and parental leave).

Also under the new policy, Ferrara Candy Co. lets new parents — both mom and dad — work part-time for their first two weeks back at work, helping them reacclimate to the working world. 

The expanded policy covers employees in both corporate and hourly jobs; the latter comprise 70 percent of Ferrara’s workforce.

Michael Goldwasser, chief human resources officer for Oakbrook Terrace-based Ferrara, said the expanded policy had no connection to the nation’s full-employment competitiveness for workers; rather, a female executive who had just become a mom pointed out that the old policy was less than ideal.

Sandi Santa Ana, category management director, had researched the parental leave policies of technology and other consumer packaged goods companies, and suggested how to improve the situation.

“[Expansive parental leave policies are] something you see at service and technology companies, but not so much in manufacturing,” said Goldwasser, who joined Ferrara just 18 months ago from online travel agency and search engine Orbitz Worldwide. Indeed, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Monday that he is taking a two-month-long paternity leave when his second daughter is born -- the same amount of time he took off with his firstborn.

“We do it because we feel we have a responsibility to support our employees as they’re going through major transitions in life,” he said of his own and Ferrara CEO Todd Siwak’s support for the new policy.

Besides Ferrara’s headquarters, the candy company employs a total of 1,000 in the Chicago area at a distribution center in Bolingbrook; a research-and-development center in Maywood, and two manufacturing plants—one in Bellwood and the other in Forest Park. The company employs another 500 in the United States and 1,300 in Mexico.

The company also has created a scholarship program to award $50,000 spread among 10 employees’ children to help pay their way to a technical school or to a two-year or four-year college or university. The eligible employees must work at jobs lower than the vice president’s level. The first group of winners, announced in July, include students who intend to study law, dentistry, fashion, engineering and a variety of other fields.

“We would love for these kids to come back (to work at Ferrara Candy), but that would be serendipitous,” Goldwasser said.

With the country at arguably “full” employment, how should startup companies compete with larger, more established businesses that grant these generous benefits?

First, so-called “full” employment isn’t really the case. In Chicago, 83 percent of working-age whites have jobs, compared with 56 percent of working-age African-Americans, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of American Community Survey data. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/02/27/employment-by-race-and-place-snapshots-of-america/

Yet, despite such systemic dilemmas, a new survey of nearly 2,000 parents with children 18 and younger living at home shows the top reason parents seek flexible work options is their desire for work-life balance. That was the response of 81 percent of the parents surveyed, according to FlexJobs, an online service for professionals seeking telecommuting, flexible schedule, part-time and freelance jobs.

Other top responses in favor of flexible work options included time savings (44 percent), avoiding commuting stress (41 percent) and cost savings (39%). Working parents, who could choose more than one response, considered work-life balance (81 percent) and flexible schedules (76 percent) more important than salary (72 percent) when evaluating a job prospect.

That’s where entrepreneurs and startups can leverage their strong points—and offering the much-in-demand flexibility every working day of their workers’ lives.

Indeed, startups and entrepreneurial companies are starting to offer more than comfy couches, ping-pong tables and free food and coffee, with newer trends including offering sabbaticals, unlimited time off and help paying off employees’ tuition debt, said Jon Shanahan, CEO of Businessolver, a human-resources benefits tech company.

That means startups are exploring broadening their traditional value proposition — that employees must suffer at the start and pay their dues for the potential opportunity to strike it rich later, said Brian Kropp, human resources practice leader at Gartner research firm.

Research shows that productivity declines dramatically after 35 hours in a workweek for people who do intellectual work, such as designers, software coders, product innovators and financial-services strategists, Kropp said.

So startups are experimenting with ideas such as job-sharing and five-hour workdays.