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Google’s Illinois Impact Challenge a ‘Shark Tank’ for economic development ideas

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Former Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte is among the panel of judges for the Impact Challenge Illinois. | Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

It’s Google’s version of TV’s “Shark Tank.”

But this panel of judges range from a former Illinois governor to a White House chief of staff for a first lady, and even a Chicago Bear.

Google is set to announce the Thursday launch of the Illinois Impact Challenge, its first statewide competition inviting nonprofits to birth bold new ideas to create economic opportunity in their communities. The prize: $75,000 in grant funding, plus training.

While the technology giant has previously offered such competitions elsewhere, those were city focused in Cleveland, Columbia, Oklahoma City and Pittsburgh.

This is the first to be opened up to an entire state.

“Illinois is an incredibly diverse state, with a wide variety of issues that impact different communities. We really want to surface the best solutions to help all of Illinois,” said Karen Sauder, head of Google in Chicago. “It’s reasonable to expect a rural nonprofit might have a different viewpoint on economic solutions than an urban nonprofit.”

So the company put up $1 million and assembled a dream team panel that will select 10 winners with ideas to grow the economy of neighborhoods like Englewood, or those in downstate cities like Peoria.

But they won’t have the last word. That will be left to the public, which gets to vote on the best of the 10, with an additional $250,000 at stake.

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar speaks Tuesday during a luncheon hosted by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform at the Standard Club of Chicago. | Lou Foglia/Sun-Times

“As the community foundation for this region, we are deeply committed to lifting up the work of community-based organizations, especially those serving communities struggling to find resources. So we will certainly be promoting it to nonprofits serving our communities,” said Chicago Community Trust’s Chief Operation Officer Andrea Saenz.

The Trust and Joyce Foundation bring the foundation expertise. They’re joined by political and sports heavyweights, Jim Edgar, former governor and founder of the Edgar Fellows program, and former Bear Matt Forte, founder of the “What’s Your Forte?” charity.

“To have Google come in and approach philanthropy in a Googlish way adds a lot of energy to what is already a very robust set of philanthropists on the ground,” Joyce Foundation President Ellen Alberding said. “The Joyce Foundation is all about policy, but clearly, tech and innovation is also a lever that has not been sufficiently utilized to address the deep-set problems of poverty and joblessness.”

White House Council Tina Tchen (left) at a White House, Dept. of Labor and Center for American Progress regional forum, on how businesses can meet the needs of working families. | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media

The panel’s rounded out by an academic, Illinois State University President Larry Dietz; and Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to former First Lady Michelle Obama, now partner at Buckley Sandler.

“What’s especially great about this initiative is we’re encouraging local entrepreneurs to come up with solutions, and as I learned at the White House, solutions to these problems don’t come from the top down, but from grassroots people who know their communities best,” Tchen said.