Interested in a technology career after college, but worried about the extreme expenses and competition in major tech centers like Silicon Valley, Seattle, and New York City? As technology becomes a dominant market in the US, startup companies are setting up in alternative cities that have diverse economies, fresh talent pools, and more affordable costs of living.
What does this mean for international students? Instead of focusing on a city that has lots of competition, students hoping to attend a US university may want to consider going to school in an up-and-coming tech hub like Chicago, Miami, Salt Lake City, or Spokane. Choosing a newer tech hub like these may offer more opportunities for internships and career placements in the future, compared to high-demand cities like San Francisco or Seattle.
Let’s take a look at four universities that offer extensive programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and are within the city limits of these Silicon Valley alternatives.
Chicago, Illinois — University of Illinois Chicago
With 378 startups founded over the last five years, according to PitchBook Data 2021, and nearly 35,000 software or data-related jobs currently available, Chicago is emerging as a leading tech hub. Rental costs are nearly 50% less than in San Francisco, according to Numbeo 2022, making Chicago a more affordable option for new businesses. In a 2021 Forbes article, Amount CEO Adam Hughes says, “With the list of groundbreaking startups in Chicago growing exponentially, the city is fast becoming a world-class hub for entrepreneurs.”
Chicago is a diverse place to work and live, ranked as the most immigrant-friendly city out of the 100 largest cities by the New American Economy (NAE) Cities Index. Plus, nearly 35% of startups are run by women, the highest amount in the world, according to Inc. Magazine in 2018. These two factors come together to create an open-minded atmosphere that is appealing to new companies with unique ideas. Some of the major tech companies in the city include Amazon, Apple, IBM, Nielsen, Oracle, Uber, and more. Many of these companies find new talent by partnering with the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC).
Located in downtown Chicago, UIC appeals to those hoping to pursue a career in STEM, as it offers undergraduate degrees in engineering, business, health science, liberal arts and science, and arts and architecture, among others. Women, in particular, may want to take a closer look at UIC as it is the first university to partner with Break Through Tech, an organization devoted to empowering women in tech fields.
The university provides opportunities for students to connect with startups coming to the area by offering internships — like the paid internships available to engineering majors as early as freshman year — and help with finding a job after graduation. Additionally, UIC’s career center hosts a variety of career fairs throughout the year to give students networking opportunities with potential employers.
Miami, Florida — Florida International University
Recognized as the #1 city in startup activity in the US (Kauffman Index), Miami is gaining traction as a burgeoning tech epicenter. Mayor Francis Suarez enthusiastically promotes the city’s startup-friendly environment on social channels, with new entrepreneurial support, investment, and resources dedicated to helping small businesses grow. This welcoming and encouraging attitude, coupled with no state income tax, a tropical location, and a large airport have put Miami on the map as a worthwhile alternative to the old Silicon Valley standbys. Tech companies in the area include The Aerospace Corporation, Chewy, Wix, Yext, and many more.
Forbes named Miami #2 in Emerging Tech Cities in the US, noting that “in 2020, two of tech’s biggest names (and wallets) relocated to Miami to make it their permanent home. Founders Fund partner Keith Rabois and Blumberg Capital founder David Blumberg moved to Miami. With them followed nearly $1 billion in venture capital in 2020 alone.” As more companies make the move from Silicon Valley and New York City, Miami is primed to become a force in the tech space.
Florida International University (FIU) is the perfect jumping-off point for a career in tech. FIU is one of the largest public research universities in the country, ranking #17 in the US for most innovative public universities and in the top 20 for utility patents awarded to a public university, according to U.S. News & World Report.
The FIU College of Engineering and Computing is a top choice for STEM majors, ranking ninth in the country for its renowned faculty by the American Society for Engineering Education. Students can take full advantage of the college’s Career & Talent Development office, which provides help with finding jobs, resume writing, interviewing skills, and more.
Salt Lake City, Utah — University of Utah
At first glance, Salt Lake City, Utah, may seem like an unlikely candidate as the nation’s next global tech center, but the city has a lot more to offer than meets the eye. In 2020, the Downtown Alliance reported that Salt Lake City Central Business District saw its highest employment, a nearly 17% rate increase in professional, scientific, and technical services, and nearly 33% of commercial leases were technology based. Tech companies in the area include Adobe, Ancestry.com, Arctic Wolf, Overstock.com, and more.
Why are so many startup companies moving to this western metropolis? To start, office spaces are a fraction of what leases cost in Silicon Valley or Seattle. The city is undergoing a transformation and has a large Millennial population to thank for it. There is also an impressive amount of tech talent, as well as an exciting entrepreneurial spirit at the University of Utah.
Not far from downtown, the University of Utah places a “strong emphasis on entrepreneurship, innovation, and quality of life,” and has been ranked among the top 10 universities for entrepreneurship by Bloomberg Businessweek, U.S. News & World Report, and The Princeton Review. This emphasis on innovation is best embodied in the university’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute. Students can choose to live, create, work, or launch a business from the institute, and available programs include startup support, networking events, innovation programs, scholarships, and more.
Another excellent resource for students wanting to pursue STEM careers is Silicon Slopes, or “the voice, hub, and heart of Utah’s startup and tech community.” This nonprofit organization provides opportunities throughout the state, including 200 events annually, as well as hosting the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit.
Students can utilize these resources while at the University of Utah to find a job at a local startup after graduation.
Spokane, Washington — Gonzaga University
Skip Seattle and head to Spokane in eastern Washington to find the next tech epicenter. Named as a “Top US Intelligent Community,” Spokane is currently home to 431 information/technology businesses, and 26% of non-farm employment is based in the tech sector. Tech companies now in the area include Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Uber, among others.
Startups love that the city provides more affordable housing options, an easier commute, beautiful scenery, and a laid-back lifestyle. Professionals love that the cost of living doesn’t exceed what they earn, as well as the chance to work close to home or even remotely for companies in Seattle. (Seattle is approximately four hours away by car.)
With so many entrepreneurial opportunities in Spokane, it’s not surprising Gonzaga University encourages international students to make it their home base in the US. The university prides itself on “educating the mind, body, and spirit, and developing personal, academic, and professional growth through critical thought and creative innovation.” Highly ranked programs include engineering, business, accounting, finance, and computer science.
STEM students will be particularly interested in the New Venture Lab, which connects aspiring entrepreneur student teams with business startups for goal-driven projects such as business plans, marketing campaigns, target research, and data/finance analysis. The projects and participating startup companies vary each semester, giving students a chance to try different aspects and roles several times throughout their academic career. The New Venture Lab also gives students the opportunity to connect with possible future employers.
Why Go to School in a New US Tech Hub?
As these four cities continue to grow, thanks to startup companies and an increase in venture capital, the possibilities for international STEM students will increase exponentially.
Whether it is internships that provide experience, networking events to meet future employers, or jobs at local startups after graduation, international students will have access to limitless opportunities while going to school in one of these up-and-coming tech hubs in the US.