Tonya Trice, executive director of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce, has a vision of artisans sparking vibrancy in her South Side neighborhood — and a team of students from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business recently worked with her to help bring that vision to life. UChicago’s Office of Civic Engagement helped the South Shore Chamber connect with Chicago Booth students through the Rustandy Challenge, a pilot program built on collaboration between community and campus.
Reimagining 71st Street
The Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation is the destination for Booth students who are committed to helping solve complex social and environmental problems. The Rustandy Challenge began to take shape when Rustandy Center staff talked with students in the summer of 2020 about potential ways to engage meaningfully with communities near the University.
The South Shore Chamber was a natural fit for the program’s pilot year: Trice and the Chamber have a longtime relationship with UChicago, and worked closely with the University’s Office of Civic Engagement early in the pandemic to identify small businesses in need of assistance through the COVID-19 Community Support Initiative.
South Shore’s 71st Street was once a booming retail corridor, with thriving stores, restaurants, theaters, banks, and other anchors of community life. But by the 1970s, public and private disinvestment, job loss, and population loss had led to businesses closing and storefronts emptying out.
In early conversations with the Rustandy Challenge team, Trice identified commercial vacancies along 71st Street and the need to boost revenue for small businesses as longtime, pressing neighborhood issues. In her view, growth and development start when the community has the chance to reimagine what vacant spaces could be. She suggested that the Challenge team help the Chamber give new life to one possible inspiration for residents.
In 2018, the Chamber had turned an empty office space at 1735 East 71st Street into The Artisan Collective (TAC), a shared retail space for artisans creating everything from clothing and jewelry to food and beauty products. “There’s a real overlooked industry of home-based arts businesses that have so much to offer the community,” says Trice.
TAC hosted a few vendors and some events like open mic nights; in Trice’s estimation, it was a great idea that had never lived up to its potential — but could become the seed of a revitalized 71st Street with some innovative thinking.
The twenty-five students who joined the Challenge began the discovery phase of the project in November, interviewing artisans and residents, along with Trice and other Chamber staff, about TAC as it was and could be. Collaboration was a priority from the start, says Rory Pavach, MBA’21, one of three student co-founders of the Rustandy Challenge. “Rather than coming in and saying ‘we go to business school; here’s what you need to do,’ we wanted to work closely with the stakeholders — the Chamber, the artisans, and the community — to understand their needs and what would be valuable to them.”
Trice says that Challenge participants “really wanted to hear what the community wanted. So often, work is done in marginalized communities by outsiders, and instead of creating solutions together, solutions are imposed upon the community. This was a great opportunity for us to work together — for the students to understand what the community felt was needed and find a way to create that.”
Focusing on Body, Mind, and Soul
The interviews revealed that many artisans and residents alike didn’t have a good sense of what TAC was for; many of those who knew of it didn’t find it an appealing space or understand what they’d find there. Artisans wanted help increasing their capacity to grow their brands. And the Chamber team knew that TAC needed to attract attention, increase revenue, and build community connections.
These learnings evolved into solutions during a Rustandy Challenge “hackathon” — a Friday-to-Sunday brainstorming and design session. Challenge participants created pitches that were judged by community development experts and leaders.
The winning pitch took a “Body, Mind, and Soul” approach, working closely with all stakeholders from November through June to create and implement actionable ways to reinvent TAC.
- The Body team evaluated the physical space of TAC with an eye toward how artisans will use the space and how it could be made more appealing to customers. Using some of the $25,000 in funding allotted by the Rustandy Center to implementing deliverables from the Rustandy Challenge, the team created plans for renovations that will begin in summer of 2021. Trice says she’s thrilled to get rid of the dated carpeting and ceiling tiles and create “a space that will attract and showcase vendors, and attract people to come and shop.”
- The Mind team worked on rebranding TAC. The centerpiece of their work is a new website that provides a comprehensive introduction to TAC and includes a directory of current and past artisans with bios and images of their work. The team also worked on a content marketing plan, analyzed financial scenarios to help Chamber staff with budgeting, and identified ways to increase revenue (e.g., by holding events like arts festivals).
- The Soul team focused on strengthening TAC’s engagement with the community, creating a playbook of ideas for building a network of local businesses and other partners. For example, a new “Art on Loan” program will place TAC artisans’ work in neighborhood retailers, helping to build the artisans’ brands and beautify the retailers’ spaces.
Unlike the more common pro bono consulting model at Booth, the Rustandy Challenge stretches over an entire academic year, from October to June. “We thought that would help us forge a closer connection with the stakeholders,” says Pavach. “We could speak with them more than once, and take the time to step back and learn about the community to get better context around the place itself.”
Another student co-founder says that the chance to work closely with the Chamber over several months to achieve tangible results was extremely rewarding. “We definitely learned that community work is hard — but it feels like a great accomplishment to work to help someone realize their vision,” says current student, Cynthia Lo. Student involvement with TAC will continue: One Rustandy Challenge participant, Iliana Vazuka, is interning there over the summer to help implement more ideas from the Body, Mind, and Soul teams with part of her stipend coming from the Chicago Booth Dean’s Office Community Catalyst Fund. “The Rustandy Challenge lets Booth students learn from and work directly with local leaders in economic development,” says Rose O’Brien of the Rustandy Center, who managed the program. “We hope this is the first of many times these students use their business skills to support the social issues they care about.”
With artisans who have a solid grounding in running their own businesses, a fresh space to showcase work, and a plan for raising TAC’s profile in the community, Trice is excited to re-launch the collective as an incubator for new South Shore arts businesses. “We’re looking ahead to having at least 15 vendors in the space on a regular basis,” she says, “who will build their businesses here, and go on to open their own storefronts right here in the community.”