Chicago Ideas Week is all about ideas, and it takes a yearlong preparation of collaborative ideas, between 400 and 500 volunteers and over a dozen venues to bring the week together for the 25-30,000 attendees that come to the more than 150 events that span over the seven day festival.
On the third day of Chicago Ideas Week (CIW) 2016, CEO Jessica Malkin and Executive Producer and Creative Director Carrie Kennedy, took time to explain how the massive event first came to be.
“There was a demand for it…there was something missing in our city,” Kennedy said, who, along with Founder and Co-Chairman Brad Keywell, started the first Chicago Ideas Week back in 2011, which brought in 12,000 people in attendance.
Since the first CIW, the team tries to aim higher every year to try out new ideas.
“We had a crazy awesome—but complicated—idea in one of the early festivals to activate stages across the city…from the DuSable Museum on the South Side to Wrigley Field,” Kennedy said.
Though CIW has more than doubled their attendance rate over the years, for easier access for guests, they now focus on three main venues (the Cadillac Palace Theatre, Morningstar and the Museum of Contemporary Art) so the process of perfecting the details of the stages to enhance the experience for guests and speakers alike takes an entire team of ideas.
When most attendees enter the Cadillac Palace Theatre during CIW, the theatre is set up and ready to go for the next speaker discussion, but the Backstage Pass lab made it possible for people to see what really goes into the preparation of the big week behind the scenes, from the inception of the topics to the final stage call.
“When choosing our topics, we look at what is happening from an anniversary standpoint or what is happening in current events,” Malkin said.
The CIW team then takes these topic ideas and reaches out to speakers who can take that topic to the next level. There are more than 150 speakers who bring their experience and expertise to the stages.
“We are not experts in everything, so we really rely on outside subject experts,” Kennedy said.
Some of those experts have included former Holocaust survivors, Olympic medalists, CEOs, actors, musicians and even current presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Kennedy said the speakers get paid only for moderate expenses, but that they enjoy doing it because they believe in the mission of CIW.
“Chicago is a city that needs a lot of good ideas,” Malkin said. “It’s about providing people a connection based on curiosity and creativity.”
“We’re here to provide a connection to people,” Kennedy chimed in. “It really doesn’t matter whether you’re a CEO of a tech startup or a principal of a high school or a college student.”
— Chicago Ideas (@chicagoideas) October 23, 2016
While Malkin and Kennedy spoke, volunteers and crew were setting up for the Genius Talk that would happen later that night. Sound checks, lighting changes and final set ups were taking over the stage.
“This particular stage design we came up with about a month and a half before the event,” Kennedy said, adding that this is the first year in which all of the main stage designs are similar in theme and are cohesive throughout the venues.
Behind the giant video screens displaying the CIW light bulb logo, an entire backstage crew is constantly hard at work. About a dozen people sit in front of screens controlling the stage visuals through monitors. Crewmembers dressed in all black organize the many mic sets and the media interviews speakers.
Kennedy said it takes about 10 hours to set up the intricate stage design at the Cadillac Theatre…and this is all happening at only one of the three main stages.
Guests attending the lab had the opportunity to ask Kennedy and Malkin questions, and even pitch their own ideas for future events.
“That is going on my 2017 list now,” Malkin said to one guest’s suggestion on youth involvement.
— Chicago Ideas (@chicagoideas) October 22, 2016
Malkin said learning something new is always a part of the process and that taking those ideas and putting them out there is ultimately her hope for those that participate.
“The heart of what we are trying to achieve is having you leave here and you’re actually able to do something with this to change your life or change the lives of somebody else,” she said. “We want to create opportunities for people to take the next step of action beyond these seven days.”