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Alvarez wins Tyree award for startups

Crain’s Chicago Business
Jim Alvarez, CEO of Gesture, won the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce’s second James Tyree award for emerging business leadership.

Mr. Alvarez, a former trader, launched a company two years ago that allows bidders at charity auctions to participate by using their cellphones. It now has 34 staffers and expects $3.5 million in revenue this year. You can read more about Gesture here.

Gesture won the award for high-growth, small companies that’s named for the former CEO of Mesirow Financial Holdings Inc., James Tyree, who died two years ago. The award was announced Tuesday at the chamber’s annual meeting.

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Chicagoland Leaders Unite at Chamber’s 109th Annual Meeting

The theme of this year’s Chicagoland Chamber Annual Meeting of Membership – “Locally Grown, Globally Known” – is indicative of the goal shared by all of the prominent business and government leaders in attendance: to promote economic development in the Chicago region in order to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel took the stage early in the event, discussing the importance of continuing to strengthen the relationship between the Chamber and City Hall to ensure collaboration between the two groups in working to revitalize the local economy.

To build a successful future for Chicago, the Mayor stressed the need for investment to make our workforce the best trained and educated in the country, the need to improve our city colleges, and the need to improve our transportation infrastructure throughout Chicagoland. He also emphasized the importance of attracting and retaining jobs and companies, noting that his work has begun to pay off as 14 companies moved their world headquarters to Chicago over the past year.

The Mayor also made sure to express his gratitude to Chamber President and CEO Jerry Roper, saying “I’d like us all to recognize 20 years of great leadership from Jerry Roper.”

Roper will retire from his post in August and will be succeeded by Theresa Mintle, who was chief of staff to Mayor Rahm Emanuel until leaving that post in March. Scott Swanson, Chair of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, led a standing ovation for Roper’s accomplishments over the past two decades and expressed excitement about the future of the Chamber under Mintle‘s leadership.

Keynote Speaker Jeff Smisek, Chairman of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer of United Continental Holdings, carried the same theme into his address with a focus on the airline industry and its importance to the business community and the regional economy.

The airline industry is responsible for $1 trillion in economic activity, millions of jobs, and the transportation needs of millions of people and companies. Because of this, Smisek said it is in the interest of all Chicagoland residents that the airline industry is successful. Smisek also fielded questions from the audience during a town hall discussion following his address.

16e4d9e8-3826-485a-8df2-f82d15350a05_zps080e0c7bThe final highlight was the announcement of Jim Alvarez, CEO of Gesture, as the 2013 James Tyree Emerging Business Leadership Award recipient. Chicagoland Chamber Vice Chairman and Mesirow Financial Chairman & CEO Richard Price presented the award alongside Eve Tyree, wife of late Chicagoland Chamber Chairman and business leader James Tyree.

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Gesture in Crain’s

alvarezAuction-goers dial their dollars with Gesture’s technology

Crain’s Chicago Business – June 2013, Lisa Bertagnoli, June 01, 2013, Photo by: Tori Soper

Jim Alvarez of Gesture LLC expects to conduct 755 fundraisers in Chicago and 13 other markets this year.

In 2011, Jim Alvarez attended a fundraiser and saw guests using smartphones to text silent-auction bids rather than scribbling on paper bidding sheets. The sight sent his entrepreneurial brain into a tailspin.

“As soon as I saw it, it was clear to me,” he recalls. “This is the future.”

Mr. Alvarez is CEO of Gesture LLC, an Oak Brook-based software outfit that enables attendees at nonprofit events to use their smartphones to bid on silent-auction items via texts, plus contribute to paddle raises and text-to-donate campaigns.

Mr. Alvarez launched Gesture by licensing the technology from its founders. His first gig was for Rush University Medical Center in May 2011, which he got by cold-calling. The event’s auction raised twice as much as expected, says Kelly Parker, assistant director of special events at Rush.

By the end of 2011, Mr. Alvarez had added 57 fundraisers. In 2012, the total rose to 295. He expects to conduct 755 in Chicago and 13 other markets this year and more than 2,200 in 2014 in part by adding six more markets—Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Houston, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Gesture will post revenue of about $3.5 million in 2013, he says. It has 34 full-time and 200 part-time staffers, who attend galas (in bright red polo shirts) to help guests get started and troubleshoot if necessary. Mr. Alvarez also controls the technology. Weary of bickering with the software’s founders over changes, he introduced his own this year.

Gesture differs from its primary competitor, Indianapolis-based BidPal Mobile Auctions, which launched in 2008. BidPal requires clients to use its own device, an iPod Touch, and it takes a percentage of an auction’s proceeds. Gesture charges a flat fee, based on gala attendance and the size of the auction catalog, which allows organizations to keep more of the loot.

Mr. Alvarez holds down costs by paying sales reps only on commission. That also has allowed him to expand with less risk.

Doug Porter, CEO of Oak Brook-based Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicago and Northwest Indiana, began using Gesture three years ago for the nonprofit’s multiple silent auctions. Gesture has boosted net proceeds by about 20 percent and has made auctions more efficient:The annual Big Mac Under Glass silent auction offers six sports jerseys, not 12; fewer jerseys mean more and higher bids, Mr. Porter says.

Read the full article on Crain’s

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Crain’s: Engaging gala-goers with technology

Crain’s Business of Life – May 2013

Rather than fight smartphone addiction, nonprofits are trying to capitalize on it with technology that makes checking one’s iPhone part of the event, not an escape from it. “People are putting their heads down and texting during content,” says Mike Huffstetler, vice president at the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center. “We’d rather have them engaged with their heads down than checking email.

The American Heart Association used Gesture, technology that employs guests’ own smartphones, for its Heart Ball silent auction this year. Guests who registered their phone number and a credit card obtained access to the silent auction catalog upon arriving at the event; a few began bidding the Tuesday before the event, when the auction was posted online for registered attendees.

The association had used BidPal’s devices the year before. Overall, the auction via smartphone was more comfortable for guests, says Maria DiCuccio, Heart Ball director. “People feel better using their own devices,” she says. Gesture staff helped guests who weren’t comfortable using the technology get started, then checked in with them periodically during the event. Staff also carried iPads to let guests without smartphones bid, Ms. DiCuccio says.

Heart Ball’s silent auction grossed $95,000, a 28 percent increase over last year, she says; she declines to give the cost of the technology. Overall, onsite fundraising, including the silent auction, accounted for $350,000 of the event’s $1.7 million gross.

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