Through Polsky Center, South Side entrepreneurs find a place to grow

Boyede Sobitan, founder of the the OjaExpress app

Steve Jobs famously advised budding entrepreneurs to “stay hungry.” For Boyede Sobitan, hunger was more than a metaphor: The Bronzeville resident was tired of having to travel to specialty markets all over Chicago to get ingredients for cooking the Nigerian dishes he grew up eating, so he started a business to make it easier for immigrants to buy the foods that connect them with home. Sobitan and co-founder Fola Dada built the OjaExpress app, where customers log in to place a grocery order as they would on Peapod or Instacart. A “sprinter” then shops local ethnic markets and delivers the order to the customer’s doorstep.

New to startup life, Sobitan needed support as he worked to launch the app, and found it at the Polsky Exchange, a coworking space and startup hub on 53rd Street in Hyde Park operated by UChicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “I was elated to find something like Polsky on the South Side,” Sobitan said. “Nothing against other incubators, but you want to be in your community.”

State-of-the-art space plus industry-leading expertise

The 53rd Street facility offers 34,000 square feet of co-working and meeting space, a fabrication lab (known as the Polsky Fab Lab), mentorship opportunities, and programming for entrepreneurs at all stages of building their companies. Membership is free for UChicago faculty, staff, and students — but for a small monthly fee, any Chicagoan can join. “We have members from all over the city,” said E.J. Reedy, senior director at the Polsky Center who oversees the Polsky Exchange, “all meeting in this space that mixes a lot of different elements and people.”

Polsky Aerial About 15 percent of the 4,200 Polsky Exchange members are community-based entrepreneurs like Sobitan who don’t have a connection to the University. As part of the Polsky Small Business Growth Program housed at the Polsky Exchange with funding from JPMorgan Chase, he had consulting help from Booth School of Business faculty and University of Chicago students. “Access to that level of expertise is unparalleled in Chicago,” he said, and was critical to creating a growth plan. “The consultants said, ‘let’s assess the competition, assess what you can do, and get you to these milestones’ — not ‘let’s get you to X amount of profitability overnight.’ It was really collaborative and not prescriptive, which is a good thing.”

Mentoring from experts is a key benefit available to all Exchange members, who can make appointments to meet one-on-one with more than 100 industry leaders with decades of experience. About half of all mentorship appointments are used by non-University-affiliated members, according to Reedy. And ongoing mentorship is an integral part of the Polsky Incubator, which provides dedicated space for startups that are already up and running but need support to grow into sustainable businesses. Any entrepreneurial team based in Chicago and wanting to grow alongside the University is welcome to apply to the Incubator, where up to fifteen companies are gestating at any one time.

As one of four founders who live in different cities, David Dewane said that “entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey a lot of the time, especially if your co-founders are remote.” After leaving his full-time job to focus on Mouse Books — a subscription service for small, stylish editions of classic books that provide an alternative to reading on a phone screen — Dewane moved to Hyde Park in 2018 to be near the Polsky Exchange.

In addition to community, Dewane has also found valuable advice and support in the Incubator. “The gap in our company was in marketing, and I found a great mentor,” he said; with her input, he created a highly focused marketing plan that’s guiding Mouse Books’ growth. To date, the company has shipped more than 40,000 books.

Prototyping products and building strong connections

Reedy points to Mouse Books as an example of the wide range of people and businesses using Polsky’s services, from the high-tech startups you’d expect to find at an innovation hub to small operations like the member who repairs double basses, the one who created a paint strainer now sold at Sherwin-Williams stores, and the partners who manufacture bookcases and cabinets.

Although those companies might not seem to have a lot in common, they’ve all used the Fab Lab to learn skills in 3D printing and prototyping to translate their ideas into physical objects. Polsky members have access to training, digital design workshops, and other tools that help them expand their Fab Lab skills and build relationships with other entrepreneurs.

Relationships are as crucial to startups as technical know-how, Reedy said, so connecting entrepreneurs with each other and with the community is another key function of how the Polsky Center supports its members. “We love opportunities to cross-pollinate,” he said, “and the Polsky Center is truly bringing together the University and wider communities as we work toward a stronger South Side.” More than 35,000 people have visited the Polsky Exchange facility to date.

Connections also take root at events that are open to the public. For example, monthly Community Business Workshops offer practical advice on everything from marketing to bookkeeping, and groups such as the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce co-sponsor regular networking events. Lunch and learn sessions, pitch competitions, and other events are also regularly featured on the Polsky calendar.

A continuum of support, from concept to launch to growth

Sobitan tries to attend as many Polsky events as he can, comparing the setting to a barbershop where people are always talking about what’s going on in the community. His next steps include applying to the Polsky Incubator as he works to expand OjaExpress.

All the way along, the Polsky Center has been “a bedrock of helping us develop our business,” said Sobitan. “This is how you connect with people, and this is how you build entrepreneurship on the South Side.”

For information about becoming a Polsky member, visit polsky.uchicago.edu/become-a-member/.

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