About six years ago, over a falafel lunch, Drew Mauck and Ryan Pollock brainstormed about ways to bring together Chicago's tech and finance communities for a good cause. Almost immediately, they arrived at the idea of a table tennis tournament.
"We knew there was a natural excitement around table tennis at early stage technology and trading companies in Chicago," said Mauck, the founder and CEO of 3Points Communications. "So we thought, what about a tournament to get the community together? It seemed a natural way to build camaraderie, but also recognize there are parts of this city that are under-resourced and need our assistance."
After lunch they walked a few blocks to a local table tennis club to see whether the idea was possible -- and soon after, the first T4Youth Table Tennis Tech Tournament was held to raise money for the students of Chicago Tech Academy.
"The entire fintech community in Chicago really just stepped up," said Pollock, founder and president of recruiting firm Objective Paradigm. "Everybody was so generous giving time or space or food because they were just so bought-in to the concept of the tournament."
The T4Youth tournament has grown steadily since its inaugural event six years ago, from about 20 teams back in 2014 to a sold-out slate of 64 groups in the most recent event. Those 2019 competitors included a large number of financial and technology firms that participate in cleared derivatives markets, including ABN Amro, Barchart, Trading Technologies, Hudson River Trading and three separate teams representing trading firm DRW.
Over that time, T4Youth has raised more than $500,000 for Chicago Tech Academy, a high school that supports young men and women from across the Chicago area.
Chicago Tech's principal, Keith Palz, says T4Youth has benefitted the school in material ways, such as providing the funds to purchase Chromebooks for every student. But equally important are the relationships that result between the school and Chicago based tech companies.
"One big difference between Chicago Tech and a typical high school is our internship program. 100% of our students take part in an internship with a tech firm here in Chicago,” Palz said. “This unique feature of our students’ experience depends on the Chicago business community to happen, and the T4Youth table tennis tournament is a key component in building those relationships.”
DRW is particularly proud of the relationships it has built through T4Youth. The Chicago trading firm helped the event get off the ground as a gold sponsor in its first year and has supported the tournament at that level ever since.
"T4Youth directly aligns with the mission of the DRW Foundation, which is to provide educational opportunities for young people around the world," said Mike Fortner, DRW's head of IT operations.
"The element of table tennis is an added bonus for us. This tournament gives us an opportunity to combine two areas that so many of our employees are very passionate about – giving back and table tennis."
Palz of Chicago Tech says that passion shows.
"We serve students from 36 different zip codes from across the City of Chicago,” Palz said. “It’s important to remember that the work of the T4Youth Board and the volunteers that make this fantastic event happen has a positive impact on each one of those communities. We can’t thank them enough.”
T4Youth co-founders Mauck and Pollock admit the Chicago event has been a big undertaking, but they are eager to look beyond a hometown tournament after last year featured a full bracket of teams. T4Youth has registered as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, fielded an enthusiastic board and is looking at the possibility of expanding into other regions where tech companies can help support the next generation of leaders.
"Sport has a way of uniting us, and table tennis is one of the few sports you can actually play within an office. So it's a natural way to build relationships that last," Mauck said. "There's a real kinship you see between folks in the tech community and Chicago Tech Academy at the tournament and also after it. They may have met at T4Youth, but it doesn't end there."
Pollock was quick to warn, however, that the spirit of camaraderie doesn't mean the event is just fun and games. He says one of the unanticipated challenges of the tournament is how fierce the competition has become, and how "sometime unsuspecting first timers, frankly, just get destroyed."
Mauck agreed, saying that while some people are there just to have fun, more than a few participating firms hold internal tournaments and practices in advance of the T4Youth event to ensure they bring their A game. Even though participants are there for a good cause, he said, they're also clearly there to compete.
"The early rounds are cordial, but as you move through the night it gets increasingly more intense," Mauck said. "Thankfully the tech folks that come out to play are all good sports, but the stakes? It might as well be the fifth set at Wimbledon."