Break Through Tech Chicago expands with semester-long consultancy

The Chicago Tech Circle team in the Fitch Group offices in Chicago. Left to right: Break Through Tech Director Amita Shetty, UIC students Fernanda Villalpando, Julieta Trejo, Falak Jamal, Andrea Knepper, Svetlana Voda and UIC Professor Dale Reed.
The Chicago Tech Circle team in the Fitch Group offices in Chicago. Left to right: Break Through Tech Chicago Director Amita Shetty and UIC students Fernanda Villalpando, Julieta Trejo, Falak Jamal, Andrea Knepper, Svetlana Voda and UIC Professor Dale Reed. (Photo: The Fitch Group)
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When Julieta Trejo was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois Chicago, the biology major heeded advice to take computer science courses to get a good grasp on technology.

Trejo was aiming for a career in biological research, but she enrolled in a computer science course as a junior.

She had some trepidation. In her Chicago high school, she was one of just two girls in an engineering program.

“I was just afraid of being in a male-dominated room,” Trejo said. “I wasn’t comfortable, so that’s why I steered away from it, and I started doing more STEM fields where it was mostly female-dominated, like biology and chemistry.”

But discovering that UIC was affiliated with Break Through Tech, a national initiative to achieve gender equity in technology, eased her worries. And the one-off computer science class quickly became her passion.

Julieta Trejo, BTT-CTC Story.
Julieta Trejo (Photo: Julieta Trejo)

Break Through Tech Chicago began at UIC in 2020 after Cornell Tech launched the initiative in 2016 to increase opportunities for women and non-binary students to pursue tech degrees and careers. Part of the program is annual Sprinternships, three-week paid micro-internships designed to transform students’ career trajectories.

Last year, Break Through Tech Chicago began Chicago Tech Circle to assign students — teams of women and non-binary people — to client companies for a full semester to work on tech and data projects. In this way, teams of UIC undergraduates can see projects through from beginning to end and benefit from faculty oversight and mentorship from the companies.

Trejo spent a semester working with a team to develop an app at the Fitch Group, the financial information services company that owns the 111-year-old credit ratings agency Fitch Ratings and analytics firm Fitch Solutions. After her Chicago Tech Circle semester and graduation, she’ll start a full-time position at the Fitch Group in September.

“Break Through Tech Chicago empowered me, supported me and led me through various obstacles and gave me real-life work experiences in the field,” Trejo said.

Semester-long projects

Trejo credits Chicago Tech Circle for her upcoming position because it lets potential employers see how students can work in teams to solve problems as they arise and complete a project by a deadline. That gives students like her a better shot at a job, she said.

Chicago Tech Circle was developed to expand on the successful Sprinternship model after companies saw the value in the mini-internships, said Amita Shetty, Break Through Tech Chicago’s director. Companies also wanted students to work on impromptu projects over a long period, as they would with consultants, giving students another real-life experience. And students and companies can see if they’re a good fit for each other.

“We kept hearing, three weeks is great, but it’s such a short time span. How else do we leverage talent to create value for organizations and advance gender equity?” Shetty said. “We thought about what more we could do to give our students longer-duration opportunities. Meanwhile, businesses can get tangible work done. The 22,000 undergrad students at UIC give us one of the most valuable assets in Chicago — human capital.”

The pilot for the semester-long paid consultancies launched in the fall of 2023 and included Trejo’s team at Fitch. Four companies are involved so far.

This summer, a Chicago Tech Circle team is working with Argonne National Laboratory’s Quantum Foundry and Q-NEXT, a Department of Energy-funded National Quantum Information Science Research Center, where the teams are tackling machine automation for quantum applications.

More than 30 students, in project-based teams, have been involved in the Chicago Tech Circle so far. That’s in addition to the more than 400 UIC students who have completed Sprinternships since 2021, making Break Through Tech Chicago’s models an opportunity to harness UIC’s diverse talent.

Value-added work

Trejo was part of a team of five students tasked with evaluating an existing Fitch Solutions app that helps investors understand the long-term implications of climate-related risks. The objective was to make the app easier to use for a general audience.

“We were all from UIC but had different backgrounds,” Trejo said. “I was biology. Two were involved in information technology, another person doing data science and another doing computer engineering.”

UIC does not currently offer course credit for the Chicago Tech Circle consultancy, but companies must pay UIC students for their work. In addition, UIC receives payment from companies.

“The company pays us a fee in exchange for their work, and then UIC, in turn, recruits the talent, manages the talent and works with the client to make sure that expectations are being met,” Shetty said.

If they decide to pursue technology as a career, students can earn an average starting salary of $70,000 to $95,000 based on their experience, Shetty added.

Derek Ferguson, chief software officer for the Fitch Group, said Break Through Tech Chicago students offer Fitch a broader viewpoint than they would get by working with a traditional software consulting firm.

Andrea Knepper
Andrea Knepper (Photo: Andrea Knepper)

“Break Through Tech Chicago students offer diverse outlooks and experiences, which is very effective in problem-solving. Fitch benefits from the different perspectives the students bring to our attention,” he said.

Break Through Tech Chicago also helps employers overcome the challenges of using traditional recruiting channels.

“It’s not easy to put together an equitable slate of candidates when the pipeline and the funnel we usually see during recruiting are so unbalanced,” Ferguson said. “This program helps us source diverse female and non-binary talent a lot earlier in the cycle, which is one of the ways to offset the imbalance that exists within the system.”

Ferguson said Chicago Tech Circle’s semester-long format has meant Fitch Group can see how potential job candidates will fit into its corporate culture, work in teams, solve problems and bring projects to fruition. So far, two students, including Trejo, have been hired from the program.

Fitch Group’s engagement with Break Through Tech Chicago goes deeper than the recent semester-long project. Fitch hosts an annual codeathon in Chicago for Break Through Tech Chicago students and welcomes them early in their technology career paths. This year will be the third that Fitch and Break Through Tech Chicago have collaborated on the three-day codeathon event.

Andrea Knepper, a computer engineering student who will start her senior year at UIC this fall, was able to parlay her work in Chicago Tech Circle into a summer internship at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.

Knepper, from Mokena, worked alongside Trejo at Fitch Group and was an assistant project manager for another Chicago Tech Circle team at an industrial conglomerate in Chicago.

She said working with Break Through Tech Chicago and Chicago Tech Circle gave her the support and confidence to know she could succeed in a male-dominated field.

“It’s great that women are getting more opportunities because it helps them see that it isn’t as scary as they thought it would be,” Knepper said. “It’s nice to be in a space where you have more people like you.”

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