Chicago's problems are my problems

Photo by Paul Octavious

Born and raised in Chicago

I’m Neal Sáles-Griffin. I am an entrepreneur, teacher, and non-profit leader.

Chicago has been my home for my entire life.

I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago in Kenwood on Drexel boulevard.

I grew up playing in Harold Washington Park off of 53rd street.

I went to Shoesmith, Ray, and St. Thomas for grammar school. I attended Mount Carmel High School off of 64th and Stony Island.

My mother is Filipina, Mexican, and Honduran. She grew up in Englewood and Roseland on the South side of Chicago with her seven brothers and sisters straddling the poverty line. As an adult she lived in South Shore and moved to Hyde Park after being held up at gunpoint. She raised me and my sister while serving as a special education teaching assistant for 17 years for Chicago Public Schools.

My father is African-American. He grew up on 54th and Cottage Grove with his eight brothers and sisters. His family struggled to make ends meet. After attending Hyde Park High School, he became a photographer working for the Hyde Park Herald, drove a taxi cab, was a UPS truck driver, and served as a Chicago police officer for 30 years.

When I was 8, I watched someone get gunned down outside my front lawn on 49th and Drexel. It was midday. I was playing with my cousins.

When I was 11, I got my first job selling Christmas trees in a grocery store parking lot. Money was tight for my family. It’s how I could have a little money to spend.

When I was 15, I was out with my friends, walking down the street, when some policemen ran us down. They pushed our faces into the ground, stepped on us, and threatened us. We reported it but nothing happened.

To stay off the streets I competed in state-wide chess tournaments. I played varsity football. I even represented Illinois at the Junior Olympics for Track & Field.

I was accepted to Northwestern University. I was the first in my family to graduate from a four-year college.

When I was 18, I helped co-found a healthcare media business. When I was 19, I opened a chain of barbershops on the South Side.

My mother's side of the family. A fraction of my Chicago family on my father's side.

Making coding accessible to all

While in college, I worked at a municipal bonds firm, as a venture capitalist, and in private equity. On the side, I held jobs as a security monitor in the dorms, as a library front desk attendant, and as a campus “safe ride” driver to help pay off my student loans. I graduated with a degree from Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy where I studied Learning and Organizational Change.

When I was 22 working in venture capital, I noticed something. I was helping invest in technology companies – but the coders and designers we invested in were the real changemakers. I committed to teaching myself that same skill and succeeded. I thought: Can I teach other beginners how to make their ideas real with technology? Could I teach them how to code, so they could solve their own problems?

When I was 23, I quit my job and founded the The Starter League (formerly Code Academy). It was the first beginner focused, in-person software school in Chicago – and one of the first in the country. This was before the #LearntoCode movement, and before there were “coding bootcamps.” At the time, no one believed you could learn to code in less than three months. And no one believed that almost anyone could do it.

I believed otherwise. Coding shouldn't be for the chosen few. Coding was a tool for anyone with the passion and willingness to learn. It had to be democratized. It had to be shared so that everyone could build solutions to their own problems.

Through The Starter League, we taught over 1,500 students from 40 states and 15 countries. Students flew in to Chicago from all over the world. They took our classes and stayed – they’ve since earned great jobs, started new careers, and built new businesses. After the success of The Starter League, over 100 coding bootcamps have emerged all over the country, creating a $266MM market.

The Starter League was the first tenant in 1871, Chicago's technology hub which I helped launch. We partnered with the city of Chicago, directly impacting Chicago Public School students by providing STEM teachers the curriculum to teach their own students to learn how to code.

Helping Chicagoans make progress

I co-chaired Chicago’s Technology Diversity Council, and helped produce the technology plan for the city.

Today, I'm the CEO of CodeNow, a national nonprofit that teaches low-income high school students how to code. Kids that look like me and grew up like me, who never thought they could build their own ideas with technology, now get a hand up.

I teach at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. And, every Monday morning, I head to the neighborhood I grew up in to teach coding to the kids at Dyett High School.

I serve on the Board of Directors of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Chicago Youth Centers, the School of the Art Institute, Chiaravalle Montessori School, Mount Carmel High School, and the National Winter Sports Education Foundation, as well as numerous advisory committees including the DePaul Idea Realization Lab and the Museum of Science and Industry.

I’m running for mayor of Chicago because my story, from my background, shouldn't be the exception to the rule.