Polsky’s Pandemic Pivot: Supporting entrepreneurs with virtual programming in a challenging time


In normal times, the two Polsky Exchange spaces operated by the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation on 53rd Street in Hyde Park are hives of activity, with co-working space, a fabrication lab, and more than 450 in-person events each year for aspiring entrepreneurs and small-business owners looking to grow. When the statewide COVID-19 shutdown was announced in March, the Exchange’s physical locations went quiet — but, says E.J. Reedy, the Exchange’s senior director, the staff is now able to engage with more people than ever.

Small-business owners are typically so consumed with day-to-day operations that they don’t have time to step back, evaluate, and plan. But during the pandemic, more than 12,000 entrepreneurs have attended Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation virtual events — an increase of 187% over last year — and about 75% of them are new to the center.

“All of a sudden, we were thrust into a period of reflection and pause,” Reedy said. “Of course there was an incredible amount of stress in the background, but it was a good time for us to figure out a new call to action. Right away, we started to see the incredible needs and the opportunities for impact that this crisis presented.”

Online, on-demand education

All community members, whether or not they have a University of Chicago connection, can take advantage of many of Polsky’s free online services.

Hours of workshops featuring UChicago professors and business experts are accessible anytime via the new Polsky on Demand portal, featuring information about everything from startup fundamentals to negotiating with commercial landlords during the pandemic. Registering with Polsky opens the door to other services such as one-on-one mentoring sessions with experienced business leaders across multiple industries. And small-business owners can apply for intensive consulting support through the Small Business Growth Program. Support for this work came from the UChicago Women’s Board and JP Morgan Chase.

Free, virtual education for entrepreneurs is the cornerstone of Polsky’s new offerings. In April, an online Small Business Bootcamp featured Chicago Booth professors and business experts discussing topics from managing cash flow to negotiating with landlords to making decisions in the pandemic environment.

Because participants could join sessions live or view recordings at their convenience, the bootcamp was “an unprecedented way for us to reach out to people who used to have major headwinds to joining us for events in person,” said Reedy. Live sessions attracted more than 1,200 participants, with hundreds viewing the recorded sessions later on YouTube.

Reedy said that the bootcamp’s popularity put Polsky on the road to building out even more free, virtual content for entrepreneurs. A ten-week Entrepreneurship Essentials series of online workshops for people preparing to launch startups debuted in October and attracted so many participants (up to 500 per session) that a new series will launch in January.

During bootcamp sessions, the Polsky team also heard from many entrepreneurs about their struggles to combat the isolation of the pandemic. That inspired the creation of Small Business Circles: cohorts of business owners, most of them women of color, meeting monthly to talk through their business challenges and questions in virtual sessions moderated by leadership coaches.

Rachel Roberts, founder of the Bronzeville-based boutique candle company Lilly Grant Candle Studio, found reassurance from her circle about coping with COVID. “The circle really helped me think about different ways I could adjust my business,” she said, and talking with more experienced business owners showed her “the resiliency of how people can overcome times like this.”

One of those seasoned entrepreneurs, Chrishon Lampley, founder of wine and lifestyle brand Love Cork Screw, survived the 2008 recession and welcomed the chance to share her experiences. “Being able to sit down and listen to what other business owners were going through was so valuable. It wasn’t a case of me wanting to vent, but wanting to tell my story to help others and make a connection.”

Practical help and an energizing boost

Over the summer, Roberts also participated in a special cohort of Polsky’s Small Business Growth Program, which pairs teams of UChicago student consultants with small businesses on the South and West sides to work through business challenges and find new strategies for growth.

Beginning in March, the University’s Community Support Initiative focused on South Side residents’ urgent food security needs and emergency grants for small businesses. Later, to provide ongoing support for business owners, the first-ever summer session of the Small Business Growth Program launched with twenty-one businesses — the program’s largest cohort to date — and dozens of former student consultants who were eager to volunteer.

Roberts’s consultants helped her create and implement new strategies for acquiring and retaining customers, enhancing her marketing, and focusing her product offerings. “Having someone do that work for free was fantastic; going through a normal consulting firm would have cost hundreds or thousands of dollars,” she said. On her consultants’ recommendations, she increased her prices to better align with the marketplace, which was timely as she adjusted her product packaging, and is testing higher-end products; next year, she plans to implement a candle subscription program they suggested.

One-on-one virtual mentoring sessions with volunteer experts also gave Roberts valuable new skills for keeping her business healthy by teaching her about financing, budgeting, evaluating margins, tracking financials, and creating sound contracts for collaborating with other businesses.

For Lampley, based in North Kenwood, the Small Business Growth Program catalyzed important steps in strengthening and expanding her business. Her virtual consultants helped her refine the Love Cork Screw website — in fact, they “tore me apart and rebuilt me,” she said with a laugh — and counseled her on the launch of her home goods brand, The Lampley. She clicked with her consultants so much, in fact, that she has hired two of them to continue helping her with social media and web development. And Polsky mentors have talked her through ways to ensure that her two brands complement each other without colliding.

“The pandemic is crazy out there. But it’s a time to be home and develop things the way I need to develop them — so when the world does open up, I’m ready,” said Lampley.

Join the community

“It’s been really great to see the new connections between the University and the small-business community,” Reedy said. “And it’s been heartening to see that as many challenges as there are, there’s also a lot of opportunity.

“We want the business owners we work with to know that we’re riding together in this time of crisis: You’ve got someone in your corner who can put additional brain power to work for you.”

To connect with the Small Business Growth Program and other Polsky offerings, including online mentoring appointments, fill out the “Get Started With Polsky” online form. To explore and register for Polsky’s new virtual programs that will launch in January, use the links below:

  • The second Entrepreneurship Essentials series of skills-based programs for aspiring and established entrepreneurs begins January 7 with a tutorial on how to present startup ideas. See details and RSVP here.
  • Five Entrepreneurial Outlooks discussions in January and February will feature funders, industry experts, and business owners talking about 2021 forecasts for industries including medical devices, food, media and entertainment, and cybersecurity. See details and register for the first session, focused on the energy industry, here.
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