With food and beverage provided by some of the community members it has supported, the Polsky Exchange fully reopened at an early September open house that brought together local business owners and entrepreneurs from the surrounding neighborhoods, UChicago faculty and students, and a whole lot of ambition and good will.
The Sept. 8 late-afternoon mixer marked the full-scale in-real-life return for the Polsky Exchange, which has been mostly closed to the public since the start of the pandemic. With two storefronts on opposite sides of the 53rd Street commercial corridor — and working, meeting and product fabrication space upstairs — the Exchange is run by the University’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation with the aim of sharing the center’s resources with South and West Side entrepreneurs.
“They supported me since day one. So it was only right for me to come out and support them,” said Tiffany Joi O’Neal, whose South Side business, Hemp Heals Body Shop, offers handmade premium CBD products. “I'm trying to get into stores such as Target and Nordstrom. So they've been instrumental in providing the research and the mentorship that I need in order to make that happen.”
The Exchange is now open Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “We will be here with our resources,” said Abigail Ingram, who took over as executive director of Polsky Exchange in March.
Along with the re-opening, Ingram announced a new membership model — to fervent applause. In the past, community members were asked to pay modest membership fees to take advantage of the Exchange’s offerings, which include everything from computer equipment and 3D printers to desk space to consultations with UChicago business students and structured programs targeting specific aspects of developing businesses.
“We are opening up the space for the community,” Ingram told the group of more than 150 in attendance.
Rather than their capital, the Polsky Exchange wants the business owners’ information in order to better help them and tailor the programming offered going forward, Ingram said.
“Are they increasing their revenues quarter over quarter? Are they rolling out into new markets? Are they hiring? Are they creating wealth for themselves and greater household wealth? That's the type of information that we'll be collecting from entrepreneurs, so we can understand that the work that we're doing is having the impact that we want it to,” Ingram said. “That's the only condition of membership.”
Local business owners will be able to maintain active membership by reporting such data each quarter. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, members can get assistance applying to the Polsky Center’s free, intensive, cohort-based programs such as the Small Business Growth Program and Small Business Financial Fundamentals. Those programs target South and West Side businesses; 95% of program participants have been minority-owned and 75% women-owned businesses.
Sharie Currie, a Kenwood resident, participated in the Polsky Small Business Growth program, and she credits the Exchange with helping her open in Hyde Park an upcoming second branch of her Recycled Modern home decor shop. She said she took from the program valuable advice on branding, scaling and even finding the new store space. “I’m here to connect with the community I’m about to be in,” said Currie, who’s been in Lakeview since 2018 and expects to open on 53rd Street in November.
“Polsky is kind of like my ride or die group right here,” said Sylvia D., a Bronzeville resident and founder of SoulPäz Bath & Body, which also went through the Small Business Growth Program. “They put together a group of students, and they went through my analytics. They went through my bottom line. They helped me understand who my target market is and also opportunities for growth in new markets. It made me think about my business in a different way.”
With 34,000 square feet across its two buildings, the Exchange is home to the only entrepreneurship-focused Fabrication Lab on the South Side accessible to community members. Membership is open to local business owners as well as UChicago students, faculty, and staff actively working on entrepreneurial ventures or involved in Polsky Center programs.
Valishia Johnson isn’t an entrepreneur yet, but she came to the open house because she and husband Ric are working on some ideas in the education field. Johnson, a real estate agent from the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, also has her eye on the FabLab space and its printers. “I do have some product ideas I’d like to test,” she said.
Laughing, Johnson compared the wide-open space hiding behind and above the Exchange’s modest storefronts to the surprisingly vast inside of the genie’s bottle in the old “I Dream of Jeannie” TV series. Similarly, she hopes Polsky’s resources offer her a kind of expansiveness, a shot at “my second life,” she said.