Minority-owned businesses thrive through Polsky Small Business Growth Program
As minority-owned businesses remain one of the fastest growing business sectors of the U.S. economy, the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago has designed a unique program that helps entrepreneurs, based primarily on the South and West sides of Chicago, address unique business challenges and determine new strategies for growth.
Geared explicitly to minority-owned, women-owned, and veteran-owned businesses, the Polsky Small Business Growth Program works with local entrepreneurs to help them increase revenue and sales, pursue expansion, overcome obstacles to pre-qualifying for capital and develop marketing strategies. Since 2017, the initiative has benefited 27 companies.
The 11-week program is funded by JPMorgan Chase’s Ascend 2020 initiative and works in partnership with the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement supported by students from across the University. It is free to participating businesses, and they receive a year’s access to the Polsky Exchange, the 34,000 square foot co-working facility and startup hub on 53rd Street in Hyde Park.
Offered in the Autumn and Winter/Spring quarters, the Polsky Small Business Growth Program selects up to 10 businesses per cycle through an application process. The businesses work with teams of student consultants, a business coach, and project coordinator who provide expert mentoring and advice.
“Our program was designed to take advantage of the incredible resources that we have with our students and to be able to give small businesses much more custom consulting and advice than they are able to get through our existing programs or other programs around the city,” said Alyssa Berman-Cutler, executive director of community development in the University’s Office of Civic Engagement.
This year’s cohort starts with an array of local businesses: Chef Driven Food Tours, focusing on neighborhood restaurants on the South and West sides of the city; Evelyn’s Food Love, a cafe and caterer offering a variety of fresh, scratch-made cuisine; Front and Center Construction, which provides premium affordable construction services in disinvested communities; Haji Healing Salon, a social wellness enterprise focusing on healing lifestyle education; Hyde Park Taco, a neighborhood restaurant specializing in authentic Mexican street food; ProFit Studio, a wellness and fitness company; Scott Global Migration, which specializes in immigration law and visas applications; S&M Plow Company, a commercial snow removal and landscaping company; and, Ware Realty Group, a full-service real estate brokerage firm providing commercial retail leasing and market research.
Last year’s participants also included food and apparel companies, two daycare centers, and other service-oriented businesses.
“We want really diverse types of businesses--so we have them in all kinds of fields, and they each have their own challenges,” said Berman-Cutler. “A lot of them share some similarities in terms of attracting customers and building from an existing customer base perhaps in their first neighborhood as they are looking to expand, as well as how to get new forms of capital in order to grow. A lot of the businesses are financially stable, but need to figure out to get the right kind of capital to reach the next step.”
Rachel Bernier-Green, owner of Laine’s Bake Shop in Chicago’s Morgan Park neighborhood, was one of those entrepreneurs trying to find ways to expand her food-based social enterprise when she joined the Polsky Small Business Growth Program last year.
"This program was extremely beneficial to what we're doing with our business, and I highly recommend it to any entrepreneur looking to grow," said Bernier-Green. "We worked with a team on marketing concepts that were very beneficial to us. We're using some of the research from what we learned for the development of our new retail location that will open in January."
"We'd like to look back a few years from now and think we were instrumental in helping these businesses grow their revenue, grow their sales, and grow their headcount of full or part-time employees," said Craig Terrill, adjunct associate professor of marketing and faculty director of the Small Business Growth Program. "The University of Chicago community belongs to the community of Chicago and our students want to be a part of that."