Axios Chicago Power Players: 15 influential people in 2023
From burgeoning industries to legendary institutions, Chicago is under new leadership, up against big challenges.
What's happening: Some leaders have risen to the occasion, both in the public eye and behind the scenes, by sparking advancements or showcasing commitment to serving our communities.
- We're recognizing them in our second annual Axios Chicago Power Players list.
Why it matters: These individuals are pushing Chicago to the center stage with innovation, grit and dedication to progress — proving that the country's third largest city is second to none.
How it works: We compiled this year's list with input from the community and our own reporting.
- We received dozens of paid nominations, which we grouped with our editorial staff's nominations, pulled from the individuals' 2023 accomplishments and commitment to Chicago. The winners include a few from both lists.
- Thank you to everyone who submitted. The nominations gave us a nice list of story ideas for 2024 and a head start on next year's power players.
Of note: This year's list does not include any elected officials or candidates running for office.
President and CEO, Chicago Bears
Kevin Warren became the fifth president in the Chicago Bears' history at the start of the year, tasked with turning around talent on the field and creating a new field entirely.
- The former Big Ten commissioner has since laid the groundwork on a new stadium, and struck a more cordial relationship with the city while negotiating the future of the franchise's home.
What we're watching: Next year, Warren will likely oversee a decision on where to locate the new stadium, and make a call on the fate of the team's quarterback.
President, NASCAR Chicago Street Race
Julie Giese led the transformation of Grant Park into a NASCAR race course, a first-of-its-kind event that boasted more than $100 million in estimated economic benefit — enough to convince the city to bring it back in 2024.
- NASCAR also hosted a STEM-related competition for CPS students, which involved designing driver helmets.
What we're watching: After last year's heavy rains delayed races and canceled concerts, Giese and NASCAR will have to make sure that year two outshines the problems of the inaugural event.
CEO, Related Midwest
Curt Bailey and Related Midwest have created several successful housing developments in 2023, but none as important as finally filling a literal hole on the lakefront. The company will break ground on two towers at 400 Lake Shore Drive this month.
- Bailey also used his powerful perch to lobby Springfield to get tax incentives for real estate developers to build affordable housing.
What we're watching: The 78. Related should begin construction on the megadevelopment near Chinatown in 2024, starting with a new University of Illinois research facility.
Owner, Brown Sugar Bakery
- In October, Hart unveiled a 10,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Ashburn that's expected to help boost the economy of Chicago's South Side.
What we're watching: Hart plans to create candies and confections at the space to sell nationwide, so now the VP can have her sweets shipped straight to Washington.
Co-owner, Chicago Red Stars
Laura Ricketts may be best known as part owner of the Cubs and Sky, but in September she added another major league sports team to her portfolio: the Chicago Red Stars.
- Ricketts, with the help of a group of investors, aims to put the franchise on steadier ground, a year after players called for the removal of the club's previous owner following revelations of widespread abuse across the league.
What we're watching: The Red Stars' plans to boost team performance and fan turnout.
- Ricketts, who co-founded a PAC that works to get LGBTQ+ women and nonbinary candidates elected, also appears poised to play a role in next year's Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Partner, Croke Fairchild Duarte & Beres
Lisa Duarte may be a new face to many Chicagoans, but she's been a well-known name to political insiders for years after working in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's administration and Gov. JB Pritzker's budget office.
- This year, Duarte — a partner at Croke Fairchild Duarte & Beres, the largest women-owned law firm in Chicago — has been instrumental in getting Latino voices elected across the country as the first Midwest board member of the Latino Victory Fund.
What we're watching: Now that the DNC is coming to town, Duarte and the Latino political community will have a chance to flex their muscles.
CEO, Feeding America
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot leads the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the U.S., which runs about 200 food banks and distributes billions of meals a year.
- Babineaux-Fontenot led Feeding America's initiative to get input from those experiencing food insecurity to better understand what people need. She also created policy recommendations, including improvements to The Emergency Food Assistance Program, and increased eligibility for free meals for students.
What we're watching: Babineaux-Fontenot is on the front lines advocating for the passage of a new farm bill, which includes crucial funding for SNAP benefits.
President and CEO, Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association
2023 was a record year for Illinois tourism, from juggernaut Taylor Swift and Beyoncé tours to the return of high-profile conferences at McCormick Place. For Michael Jacobson, who lobbies on state tourism and hospitality matters, that was a hard-earned win.
- In 2022, Jacobson got the state to fork over $30 million for a new advertising campaign, starring Jane Lynch. This year, the CEO helped successfully push the feds to expedite migrant work permits, noting Chicago had 1,600 open hotel positions alone this summer.
What we're watching: Mayor Brandon Johnson campaigned on more taxes on downtown businesses and hotels, which could add to the already 17.4% tax rate on hotel stays in Chicago.
Artistic director, Goodman Theatre
Susan Booth took over the artistic director reins from Robert Falls in late 2022, becoming the first woman to lead the theater in its almost 100 years.
- At a time when many local institutions are struggling, the Goodman broke sales records with "The Who's Tommy" this summer. And in Booth's first curated season this fall, the Goodman scored its most successful season opener since 2017 with Pearl Cleage's "The Nacirema Society," officials said.
Plus: In the same season, Goodman reached new audiences with its Chicago Latino Theater co-production, "Lucha Teotl." 60% of single-ticket buyers for the show were new to the theater.
What we're watching: Booth's first production as director this spring with Margaret Atwood's "The Penelopiad."
CEO, NanoGraf Corp.
Gov. JB Pritzker wants Illinois to become a clean energy leader and Francis Wang's NanoGraf seems poised to help make that happen by improving the run time and power output of lithium-ion batteries.
- Earlier this year NanoGraf raised $65 million in series B funding. Last week, NanoGraf opened a facility in the West Loop to produce silicon anode materials, which can transform how battery-run products — from EVs and medical devices to U.S. military equipment — are powered.
What we're watching: The company is looking to expand and open more production facilities in the future, Crain's reports.
Che "Rhymefest" Smith
Musician, fellow at Illinois Institute of Politics at University of Chicago
The Chicago hip-hop star has always kept his hands in the local music scene, but this year Che "Rhymefest" Smith kept his pulse on politics.
- The Grammy Award-winning musician was named a fellow at David Axelrod's Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, where he leads seminars on leadership, business and political activism. He also has also lent his voice to the ongoing fight over migrant shelters in neighborhoods.
What we're watching: Che's music career isn't taking a back seat — he signed a deal with Golden State Entertainment, the production company for the Golden State Warriors, to create music for Black History Month this February.
CEO, LaSalle Network
Chicago's downtown recovery has been slower than that of other major cities, forcing several big companies to be more flexible with their workforce. Enter Tom Gimbel, CEO of the massive recruiting firm LaSalle Network.
- In 2023, CEOs and other employers leaned on Gimbel to learn new ways to attract and retain talent all while gutting out a wobbly economic forecast.
What we're watching: Employees have the upper hand in the new labor market, so employers will need to find new ways to keep workers happy.
Chef, Prairie Grass Cafe
Veteran Chicago chef Sarah Stegner oversees the breathtaking seasonal American fare at Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook, while somehow finding time to help the rest of the world.
- A co-founder of Chicago Chefs Cook, she has in the last year marshaled her colleagues to raise money for disaster relief in places like Syria, Turkey, and Maui — while working on separate projects to clothe migrants, develop diverse culinary leaders and help heal youth through food.
Joey Mak is fighting an uphill battle in Chicago tech's world. No, he's not trying to get funding for a new startup, instead he's keeping tabs on the strides — or lack thereof — VCs and tech companies are making regarding diversity.
- Chicago's burgeoning tech scene is mostly white, but Mak is using the nonprofit Chicago:Blend to hold firms accountable to their diversity, equity and inclusion goals at a time when many are scaling back on those initiatives.
What we're watching: The data. Mak compiles it for their yearly breakdown on how Chicago tech is handling DEI.
Co-founder and CEO, Songfinch
After launching a custom song-making business in 2016, John Williamson's Songfinch is now one of the most successful startups in town.
- Williamson says the company has sparked more than 300,000 personalized tunes that have guided people through breakups, helped therapists teach kids about peer pressure and soothed young cancer patients. Plus, Songfinch has poured $20 million into the pockets of independent musicians over the last 12 months.
What we're watching: How, if at all, AI starts to compete in this marketplace.
Editor's note: This list has been corrected to reflect that Joey Mak is the CEO of Chicago:Blend (not the founder).
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