Dec 7, 2023 - Business

Axios Chicago Power Players: 15 influential people in 2023

Photo illustration of a collage of Kevin Warren, Che Rhymefest Smith, Sarah Stegner, Laura Ricketts, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, and Francis Wang framed by stair-like shapes.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photos: Wireimage via Getty Images and courtesy of Kevin Warren, Sarah Stegner, Laura Ricketts, Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, and Francis Wang.

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.

Kevin Warren

President and CEO, Chicago Bears

Photo of a man posing for the camera
Kevin Warren. Photo courtesy of the 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.

Julie Giese

President, NASCAR Chicago Street Race

Photo of a woman posing for camera in a headshot
Julie Giese. Photo courtesy of 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.

Curt Bailey

CEO, Related Midwest

Photo of a man posing for the camera
Curt Bailey. Photo courtesy of 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.

Stephanie Hart

Owner, Brown Sugar Bakery

Stephanie Hart stands next to Gov. JB Pritzker with giant scissors, cutting tape that says "Brown Sugar Bakery Factory."
Gov. JB Pritzker celebrated Stephanie Hart, middle, this fall as she opened the only Black woman-owned chocolate manufacturer in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Office of the Governor, JB Pritzker.

After more than 20 years in business, Stephanie Hart's iconic creations at Brown Sugar Bakery in Grand Crossing are drawing visitors as high profile as Vice President Kamala Harris.

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.

Laura Ricketts

Co-owner, Chicago Red Stars

Photo of a woman posing for the camera
Laura Ricketts. Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

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.

Lisa Duarte

Partner, Croke Fairchild Duarte & Beres

Photo of a woman posing
Lisa Duarte. Photo courtesy of 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.

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot

CEO, Feeding America

Photo of a woman posing.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot. Photo courtesy of 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.

Michael Jacobson

President and CEO, Illinois Hotel & Lodging Association

Photo of a man smiling for the camera
Michael Jacobson. Photo courtesy of the 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.

Susan Booth

Artistic director, Goodman Theatre

Photo of a woman sitting on stairs
Susan Booth. Photo by Joe Mazza courtesy of the 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."

Francis Wang

CEO, NanoGraf Corp.

Photo of a man sitting down and posing for the camera
Francis Wang. Photo courtesy of NanoGraf

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

Photo of a man talking to students in a class
Che "Rhymefest" Smith speaks to University of Chicago students during a seminar in 2023. Photo courtesy of The Institute of Politics

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.

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.

Tom Gimbel

CEO, LaSalle Network

Photo of a man sitting behind a desk in an office
Tom Gimbel. Photo courtesy of 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.

Sarah Stegner

Chef, Prairie Grass Cafe

Photo of a woman cooking with an apron on
Sarah Stegner at a fundraiser to send relief to victims of war in Tigray. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

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.

What we're watching: Stegner is helping Chicago's Jean Banchet Awards launch a new chapter, and spearheading a recent program to accommodate the sensory needs of diners with autism.

Joey Mak

CEO, Chicago:Blend

Joey Mak. Photo courtesy of Chicago: Blend

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.

What we're watching: The data. Mak compiles it for their yearly breakdown on how Chicago tech is handling DEI.

John Williamson

Co-founder and CEO, Songfinch

Photo of a man posing in front of a wall of quotes
Photo by Mollie Starnes courtesy of 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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