A rendering of the Discovery Partners Institute in The 78. Credit: Provided

CITYWIDE — An innovation lab coming to the Near South Side will include a center aimed at getting more women and people of color into the tech industry — and it just got a big financial boost.

The Pritzker Foundation is investing $10 million over the next five years to establish Pritzker Tech Talent Labs at the Discovery Partners Institute, a University of Illinois-led tech hub.

The center will host programs dedicated to cultivating the skills needed to have a career in tech. The workforce programs will prioritize women and people of color who are underrepresented in the field, said Penny Pritzker, who leads the foundation with a bevy of Pritzker family members.

“We know the talent exists across our region. The talent is universal. But the opportunity is not,” said Pritzker, the former secretary of commerce. “Our goal is to make the tech sector more inclusive.”

The Discovery Partners Institute is a 500,000-square-foot facility aimed at supporting Chicago’s tech industry, leading applied innovation and training people for careers in technology. The institute will be built at The 78 mega-development on the Near South Side.

Former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.

The talent lab is developing two flagship programs.

First, Pritzker Tech Talent Labs will build a program to galvanize interest in technology and high-demand skills beginning in high school. The program will help students learn skills like coding, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence by expanding opportunities for internships, mentorships and specialized instruction, Pritzker said.

“The goal is to make a pathway that is easier to access and that can be accessed earlier for more of the people in our communities,” Pritzker said.

The second program will target people already in the workforce to help them access the training necessary to transition into the tech industry. Nonprofit P33, which Pritzker co-founded, is a key partner on the project and will bring companies in the private sector to the table to develop their recruitment and training practices.

A core piece of the project is connecting resources and opportunities in tech to places where students and potential workers are often overlooked by tech industry recruiters, including City Colleges of Chicago, Chicago State University and University of Illinois at Chicago — all places with significant populations of first-generation students and minorities.

“It’s actually connecting a lot of the places that have students of color that aren’t normally thought of as that pipeline … and makes them part of the integrated solution,” said P33 CEO Brad Henderson.

People of color make up only 12 percent of Chicago’s tech workforce, Pritzker said. But Chicago’s Black and Latino population make up about 60 percent of the city.

At the root of that disparity is disinvestment and a lack of opportunity in Black and Latino communities that must be remedied by helping people gain the skills needed to thrive in a “rapidly changing and challenging economy,” she said.

Announced in 2017, Discovery Partners Institute leaders signed a letter of intent earlier this year to begin building its $250 million headquarters on The 78 site. Half a billion in state funding had been promised to the Illinois Innovation Network — which involves U of I as well as several state universities — since it was backed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner. About $235 million of those state funds are committed to DPI.

Gov. JB Pritzker does not work with the Pritzker Foundation but he has supported DPI. He released $142 million in state money last month for the broader network, earmarking $23.5 million for the institute.

The funding released by JB Pritzker represents the first state dollars to be invested into the institution.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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