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 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 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.

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.




EXCLUSIVE: Chicago Ranks 34th Nationally in VC Healthcare Funding, Yet Investment Opportunities Abound


By: Sandra Guy


Chicago lags other parts of the United States in attracting venture capital investment in healthcare technology startups, but the sector’s growth opportunities have just begun.

That’s the conclusion of the latest report from PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor, which tracked $23.9 million in investments in nine healthcare technology systems companies through June 30. The data cover the six-county Chicago region, and both patient-focused and medical-device innovations.

Chicago has raised the 34th highest amount of venture capital for healthcare startups among major metro areas nationwide thus far this year, compared with its 11th place standing at this time in 2016, the data show.

“When it comes to medical data especially, the ability for it to improve patient care, whether through the in-patient process or through discovery of new treatments or genes, new healthcare technologies are going to be a big opportunity for investors,” said Kyle Stanford, an analyst at PitchBook Data, Inc.

“As long as there are new innovative ideas to fund, venture capital will be active within the space,” he said. “Healthcare isn’t getting less expensive, so increased investment is going to be needed.”

The growth outlook is underscored by a separate report that shows healthcare and pharma among the top six cash-holding sectors in the U.S. economy, behind only technology but ahead of consumer products, energy, automotive and manufacturing. Total cash grew by 9.2 percent, to $1.84 trillion, despite a $74 billion, or 1.5 percent decline in debt, according to Moody’s Investors Service’s latest update.

Chicago’s startups and money-raising efforts promise continued investment, too. One example is the city’s first-of-its kind competition, sponsored by venture philanthropy firm Three Lakes Partners, to award $1 million to developers of up to three “big ideas” to improve the lives of people living with an incurable lung disease known as Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, and their caregivers.

The Three Lakes challenge offers a case study for how a family office can impact a disease by attacking it from all angles. It's venture philanthropy in the truest sense.

The sponsor is uncovering all opportunities, bringing together experts from around the world, investing in research, awareness, entrepreneurs, new ideas and public education, potentially emerging as a new model that will gain traction elsewhere.

Yet, even with the promises of technology — after all, Swedish researchers are testing drone delivery of defibrillators to people in the first stages of a heart attack — the real key to success is serving patients with access, accommodations and affordability.

What does that look like, and what might Chicago startups consider in their own success stories?

One working model involves Emory & Henry College in the Appalachian region of southwestern Virginia. The college’s students in the new School of Health Sciences will help provide occupational and physical therapy services to patients who are uninsured or who, as the working poor, struggle to afford medical services.

The clinic is tripling its patient load over the next few years to serve the working uninsured or those who have lost employment within the past nine months and whose income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. As part of the effort, the E&H students will also help with women's health care, behavioral medicine, genetic counseling and dental hygiene services.

The Mel Leaman Free Clinic operates as a private, not-for-profit medical facility and does not receive reimbursement from patients or insurers for services. All operating funds come from donations or grants. 


DePaul University joins 1871, the nation’s largest entrepreneurial technology incubator



CHICAGO — With a commitment to innovation, quality education and providing real-world experiences to students, DePaul University is opening a dedicated space at 1871, Chicago’s prestigious entrepreneurial technology hub. The collaboration gives DePaul students, faculty members and alumni access to 1871’s programming, special events, workshops, lectures, and provides networking opportunities with industry thought leaders.

“Having a presence at 1871 is important to connect DePaul to the rest of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Chicago,” said Bruce Leech, executive director of DePaul’s Coleman Entrepreneurship Center. “1871 provides all of the vital resources in one space — from business networking and mentorship to legal and financial support that can help students and alumni get their businesses started.”

Faculty members also will have an opportunity to become mentors to 1871 members and showcase their research by conducting meetings in DePaul’s dedicated space, holding workshops and classes in 1871 facilities, and providing content for 1871’s members, Leech added.

As part of University Row, DePaul joins the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Loyola University, University of Illinois, DeVry University, and Illinois Institute of Technology at 1871. Each of the universities will participate in Campus 1871, a springtime, weekend-long event that brings together the best and brightest from each of the partner universities to create their own startups with like-minded university students.

“This partnership has been a long time coming and we are thrilled that DePaul is formally joining the 1871 community,” said 1871 CEO Howard A. Tullman. “Our partnerships with universities are one of 1871’s biggest advantages and offerings, and DePaul is a crucial addition to this fold. We look forward to welcoming people from around the DePaul family to 1871.”

Four academic units at DePaul will be a part of the collaboration with 1871: the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center in the Driehaus College of Business, College of Computing and Digital Media, College of Law, and Academic Affairs.

“The College of Computing and Digital Media has always had an innovative and entrepreneurial culture,” said David Miller, dean of the college. “The partnership and access to 1871's resources takes this one step further and allows our students to learn from the experiences of successful startups and to find partners to realize their own innovative ideas.”

"It is important for the College of Law to be a key partner in this collaboration. We recognize that law, business and technology are inextricably intertwined in today's world, and lawyers and law students need to problem solve in contexts — like the ones offered at 1871 — where those disciplines all come together,” said Dean Jennifer Rosato Perea of the College of Law.  

DePaul’s colleges and schools have distinguished reputations for preparing graduates to work, succeed and contribute in the global community. The university’s tradition of providing a quality education to students from a broad range of backgrounds, with particular attention to first-generation students, has resulted in one of the nation’s most diverse student bodies. Graduates of DePaul are urban educated, giving them access to connect with a robust network of thought leaders from across the globe and providing them with real-world experiences. For more about DePaul University, visit

“I am proud to be an alumni of DePaul University because of its diversity and close connections with the community,” said DePaul alumnus and 1871 member, Zakery Kates. “I am thrilled that DePaul is joining 1871 — another vibrant community. I am certain this partnership will result in exciting opportunities for many people and have an enormous impact on Chicago.”

Kates, a 2013 graduate of DePaul, also expressed his excitement for upcoming opportunities to get involved with alumni activities and potential mentoring activities with current DePaul students wishing to establish a career in the tech.

1871 is the home of more than 400 early-stage, high-growth digital startups. Located in The Merchandise Mart, this 130,000 square foot facility is also the headquarters of nationally recognized accelerators Techstars Chicago and the Good Food Business Accelerator; impact investing fund Impact Engine; half a dozen industry-specific incubators in key areas such as real estate, education technology, food and financial technology; several emerging tech talent schools (Fullstack Academy, Anyone Can Learn to Code, Future Founders, Designation and the Startup Institute), and the state's leading technology advocate, the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition. It is the second home to Chicago-based VCs, Pritzker Group Venture Capital, MATH Venture Partners, Hyde Park Angels, OCA Ventures, OurCrowd and Chicago Ventures, as well as satellite offices for Northwestern University, University of Illinois, University of Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, Illinois Institute of Technology, and DeVry. 1871 has fast become recognized as the hub for the city’s entrepreneurial/technology ecosystem and has been featured in Inc. Magazine, TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business among other top media. 1871 is the flagship project of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center. 

For more about 1871, visit