Polsky Small Business Circles connect entrepreneurs during challenging times

polsky small business circles

When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Illinois’ governor to issue a stay-at-home order in mid-March, many Chicago small-business owners immediately saw trouble ahead.

“I built my business on bringing people together face to face,” said Saya Hillman, founder of Mac & Cheese Productions, a one-of-a-kind enterprise that helps people connect with others, opportunities, and themselves. For her, stay-at-home meant cancellation of ticketed events and corporate speaking and facilitation gigs, costing her thousands in expected income.

Stay-at-home was “a triple whammy” for Chrishon Lampley, owner of Love Cork Screw, a wine and lifestyle brand that sells wine, entertainment experiences, and other products and services: “My wine tastings, sales to bars and restaurants, and speaking engagements all evaporated instantly.”

Hillman and Lampley connected with each other and fellow Chicago entrepreneurs through Polsky Small Business Circles (SBCs), a new offering from the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Concrete steps plus new connections

At the outset of the pandemic, as part of UChicago’s Community Support Initiative, the Polsky Center launched a virtual Small Business Bootcamp to help business owners take action on pressing issues like accessing capital, negotiating with landlords, and managing cash flow.

The bootcamp’s courses, taught by Chicago Booth professors and business experts, “provided a lot of hands-on, tactical content,” said Nima Merchant, Polsky’s senior associate director of strategic planning and partnerships. “But because we weren’t able to meet in person, there wasn’t that component of interaction, networking, and support that’s usually part of our offerings.”

To give entrepreneurs a place to converse and connect with each other, SBCs were born. “Given the intense challenges that our small business owners were facing, we knew that it would be critical to provide a place in which people could both fall apart safely and also stay strong together. Peer circles like the Small Business Circles are a great way to achieve that — they are small enough to create intimacy and connection, and large enough so that people can tap into a diversity of ideas, insights, and support,” said Carolyn Ou, director of leadership initiatives at the Davis Center.

polsky small business circles

With facilitation provided by leadership coaches, seventy-one business owners  — most of them women of color, running businesses as varied as realty offices, restaurants, salons, retail, manufacturing, and construction — met monthly in eight cohorts via Zoom in April, May, and June. Participants brought their questions, business challenges, and reports from the pandemic economy.

“I always love the opportunity to grow with other people,” Hillman said. “And the dynamic of many different people with different experiences and backgrounds and issues was really helpful.” Lampley said that for her, the SBC was “a great experience to listen to what others were going through and help where I could. I’ve been referring to it as ‘business therapy.’”

Keeping businesses afloat during times of unrest

Just before the SBC cohorts’ second meeting, George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer sparked nationwide unrest, and many Chicago businesses saw significant impact.

“A number of our participants from the South and West sides had damage to their brick-and-mortar locations,” Merchant said. “Some people needed to talk about business, and some wanted to talk about what was going on in the world. Every group met their fellow members where they were.”

Many of the resulting conversations led to an even deeper connection among SBC participants. “Individually, we felt angst over handling business as usual, but at the same time we all had businesses to run and needed to pay our bills,” said Hillman, who has pivoted successfully to virtual events. “It was empowering to come together as a group and hear that we weren’t alone. We talked about marketing each other and ourselves as a cohort.”

Lampley added, “It was hard to know whether we should be marketing, and how to do that without being tone-deaf. I learned that there are ways to let people know I’m here, a woman of color with a business. Being in the circle made me not scared to share more with the public.” After the meeting, Hillman created a heartfelt Instagram post featuring her SBC cohort, and Lampley’s own sharing on social media helped garner her more than 4,000 new followers.

Lampley is continuing her growth trajectory by working with Polsky’s Small Business Growth Program, which supports business owners on Chicago’s South and West sides and has worked with more than 70 businesses so far this year. The program’s faculty and student consultants have helped to connect her with potential investors and reorganize her website to drive sales. “When our circle got together, everybody was just in this low, low, low time,” Lampley said. “Talking about how to survive as a woman-owned business has been a real boost.”

The application for the Fall 2020 Small Business Growth Program is open through September 11, 2020. Click here to learn more and apply.


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