Neal Sales Griffin

A Chicago Original

Whether he’s running a company or campaigning for social change, alumnus Neal Sáles-Griffin is drawing on his learning and organizational change skills to “help people be great.”

By Kathryn Masterson

When tech entrepreneur Neal Sáles-Griffin (BS09) began his surprising bid to become Chicago’s next mayor, he never questioned that Northwestern University would play a key role.

After all, fundamental classes in the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP)—and the connections he made during his action-packed college days—have become part of Sáles-Griffin’s core. So when the 30-year-old nonprofit leader and teacher began his unconventional cam- paign to lead the country’s third-largest city, he immediately leveraged his Northwestern network and knowledge.

Northwestern students—including those taking Sáles-Griffin’s Engineering and Entrepreneurship class and mentees in Northwestern accelerator programs—provided the spark to turn his concerns about the city’s direction into concrete action and run for office.

“Younger people, they dream,” he says. “They care about things like honesty and transparency. They believe things are possible that a lot of folks don’t. I have been soaking up all of that energy and hopefulness for the past few years.”

In pure grassroots fashion, students from SESP and the McCormick School of Engineering are conducting research for the campaign, managing volunteers, and planning outreach and marketing. The chance to work with and learn from the gregarious Sáles-Griffin reflects a major area of emphasis at SESP: practical experience outside the classroom.

“You can tell he has the ability to bring people together within the first 30 seconds of meeting him,” says Claire Lew (BS11), who co-teaches the Engineering and Entrepreneurship class with Sáles-Griffin and has helped the campaign with messaging. “His integrity is consistent, through and through.”

Senior Lucas Philips almost immediately joined the campaign and began recruiting more than two dozen volunteers through Facebook. Philips, CEO of BrewBike, a student-run coffee venture he started in his first year, credits Sáles-Griffin with giving him the idea to start a business with a physical presence. BrewBike is now located in Annenberg Hall and plans to expand to Main Library in the fall.

“Northwestern students are always looking for real-world experiences,” says Philips, who has lectured in Sales-Griffin’s entrepreneurship class and leaned on him for advice. “Getting in on the ground level of a mayoral campaign gives a perspective you can’t find in class.”

Philips, who canvassed for former president Barack Obama in 2012, is the chief contact between Northwestern students and the campaign; he and McCormick’s Izzy de la Guardia organized and streamlined the process for on-boarding student volunteers.

By late October, Northwestern students and alumni made up about 20 of the campaign’s 120 volunteers. Two McCormick students lead the committees for volunteer management and research.

Driven From Day One

As a mixed-race, low-income kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago—his father is African-American and his mother is Filipina, Mexican and Honduran—Sáles-Griffin attended a mix of public and private schools and said he “struggled to find his place in society.”

But at Northwestern, he discovered his passion for solving problems and began exploring leadership roles and pursuing business opportunities.

As Northwestern’s student body president, the charismatic Sáles-Griffin used learning and organizational change principles to make student government more accessible and efficient.

He co-founded a healthcare business, opened a chain of barbershops on the South Side, worked in private equity and as a venture capitalist, and held side jobs—including one as a campus SafeRide driver—to help pay off student loans.

After becoming the first in his family to earn a degree from a four-year college, he taught himself coding and started one of the first coding boot camps in the country, the Starter League, which he sold in 2016.

“At the time, no one believed you could learn to code in less than three months,” he says. “And no one believed that almost anyone could do it.”

Currently CEO of CodeNow, a nonprofit that teaches coding to schoolchildren across the country, Sáles-Griffin said he began thinking about running for mayor after giving a speech introducing J. B. Pritzker, who was launching his campaign for Illinois governor. Afterward, several people approached Sáles-Griffin about running for mayor, an idea he couldn’t shake.

“My story, from my background, shouldn’t be the exception to the rule,” he says.

Still, Sáles-Griffin knows he is a long shot in a crowded field of challengers. His inexperience showed during a rambling campaign kick-off speech that, by his own admission, he “bombed.”

He has no political experience, save for his stint as student body president and lacks name recognition. His campaign must build coalitions with different groups and collect enough signatures to get on the February ballot—not an easy feat in Chicago, which requires 12,500 of them.

“I’m figuring out everything as I go,” Sáles-Griffin says. “But we’re doing this together. I’m surrounding myself with people who know a lot more than me in other areas, and I’m going to take everyone along with me.”

Regardless of the outcome, students who work for Sáles-Griffin will learn the ins and outs of an unconventional campaign. The “Neal for Mayor” website prominently features Sáles-Griffin’s personal phone number, and when he invites people to call, he means it. He plans to make his campaign-building experience transparent and collaborative, which he says is similar to how he ran his software coding company.

“Campaigns come and go,” Sáles-Griffin says. “I want every student who gets involved to be gaining experiences that reflect their goals and their dreams.”