Community-based entrepreneurs discuss innovation on Chicago’s South Side

UChicago Local panel discussion helps mark initiative’s second year

South Side communities offer many opportunities for innovators but also face longstanding challenges, according to entrepreneurs and business development specialists who participated in a community-focused panel discussion as part of the University of Chicago’s Innovation Fest.

The May 27 discussion, called “Innovation in the Community,” was held at Gallery Guichard in Bronzeville and hosted by UChicago Local, a University-wide initiative led by the Office of Civic Engagement to support locally owned businesses in mid-South Side neighborhoods.

Featured panelists included Ethan Daly, director of strategy and partnerships for Sunshine Enterprises, which owns the Greenline Coffee shop in Woodlawn; Kirby Johnson, director of the Bronzeville Incubator; and Laura Lane, an attorney who works with the Network of Woodlawn. Charisse Conanan Johnson, director of the Chicago office of economic development consulting firm Next Street, moderated the discussion, which covered the community needs driving innovation and the biggest challenges.

Johnson, of the culinary-focused Bronzeville Incubator, is pushing for a resurgence of service-related businesses along key corridors on the South Side. He stressed the need for capital infusion that can stay in the community for longer periods of time. “We need to start building a bridge between small businesses that need permanent financing, and investors who have money and are willing to make long-term investments,” Johnson said.

Lane, who has worked in both the private sector and government, as well as with economic development corporations in both Woodlawn and Kenwood-Oakland, sees lack of legal services and infrastructure as unmet needs in both communities. She spoke candidly about the absence of a digital infrastructure to serve businesses in the area.  “I see ‘digital isolation’ as one of our biggest challenges.  We need digital literacy guidelines in our schools, and we need to develop a Wi-Fi network that is accessible for the entire community.”

Sunshine Enterprises is a 110-year-old faith-based, nonprofit that began as a rescue mission for battered women. In 2012, it established Sunshine Gospel Ministries, which helps entrepreneurs in Woodlawn launch neighborhood-based businesses, which in turn employ young people in the community. Daly stressed the need to understand the correlation between absence of work and violence and blight in our communities. He spoke passionately about the affirming power of work and how it restores dignity.  Daly said Sunshine’s goals are to establish what he calls “cultural capital” by building relationships both within and outside the community and to pool local resources to ultimately provide residents the ability to build assets through income from meaningful work. 

UChicago Local partners with Sunshine and works with the Network of Woodlawn and the Bronzeville Incubator to increase opportunities for area businesses and community residents seeking employment.  The event also marked the second anniversary of the initiative.

Derek Douglas, the University’s vice president for civic engagement, noted that UChicago Local has worked with more than 250 South Side businesses since its inception in 2014, providing counsel in developing business strategies as well as business basics, including marketing and accounting. UChicago Local also works to connect local businesses to opportunities at the University and UChicago Medicine.

Douglas noted that when the University recently issued a request for proposal (RFP) for dining services—a contract worth more than $22 million and involving more than 300 employees—the RFP included a stipulation that 35 percent of the work be allotted to women and minority-owned entities and that 50 percent of the employees come from local South Side communities. In April, the University awarded the business to Bon Appétit, which pledged to partner with the Office of Civic Engagement through UChicago Local and with the Office of Business Diversity to meet the new requirements.

“We are increasing our expectations for diversity and inclusion from the vendors that work with the university,” Douglas said.  “At the same time, we’re not doing anything different. We’re buying and we’re hiring, but we’re being more strategic in using that buying power to direct our vendors to the people and businesses in our community.”

Bon Appétit already had a companywide requirement for all of its chefs to source at least 20 percent of ingredients from “farm to fork” or local vendors. Janice Moore, the company’s district manager for UChicago, notes, "The University of Chicago has an above-and-beyond commitment to investing in the local community, specifically by purchasing from South Side minority-owned, women-owned, and small business enterprises. Our contract with the university says we will support the University’s goals in this area in addition to our own socially and environmentally responsible purchasing commitments."

Douglas said several institutions, including John Hopkins University and Drexel University, have visited the university to gain insight on how to implement similar partnerships. Administrators from Johns Hopkins visited to get a better understanding of UChicago Local programs and, as a result, launched Hopkins Local in Baltimore.

Other UChicago Local activities include the Business Accelerator, a partnership with Next Street that provides local business owners with individualized support to help prepare them for potential opportunities with the University. Since the accelerator launched in 2015, 20 businesses have taken part. This spring, UChicago Local launched the Student Economic Development Consulting Experience through which University undergraduates provide local businesses with consulting services. Students are currently supporting five South Side businesses on immediate needs.

“Small business owners are often significant sources of innovation, particularly when it comes to addressing needs in their local communities,” said Alyssa Berman-Cutler, who leads the UChicago Local initiative. “We look for ways the University can use its resources to support local innovators.”

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