male mogul initiative

Male Mogul Initiative

In 2016, Walter Mendenhall had a life-changing conversation with a 16-year-old on Chicago’s West Side. The young man was an honor student and a standout basketball player who had an academic scholarship lined up for college — but he was selling drugs to help support his family.

“After that conversation, my only thought was, ‘When Black young men are making bad decisions based on finances, what can I do to solve this problem?’ The solution starts with me, with all of us,” Mendenhall says.

He took action by founding the Bronzeville-based nonprofit Male Mogul Initiative (MMI) to teach young men the basics of entrepreneurship, help them identify and strengthen their gifts and passions, and build their leadership skills. Over the last seven years, more than 1,200 youth ages 14 to 24 have participated in MMI programming in Chicago Public Schools and during the summer.

In 2022, MMI received a grant from Southland RISE (Resilience Initiative to Strengthen and Empower), a joint violence recovery and trauma care program run by UChicago Medicine and Advocate Health Care. Southland RISE awards more than $150,000 annually in grants to South Side grassroots organizations that keep young people engaged, learning, and safe during summers in the city, when violence usually spikes.

The 2022 grant arrived just in time, Mendenhall says: “In early June, two of our funders backed out, so we were in a scramble to raise funding. With the Southland RISE grant and a couple of other funders, we were able to keep the programming in place.”

The grant helped fund MMI’s summer “Be a Mogul” program. It begins with participants exploring three foundational questions — Who are you? Why do you matter? What’s your purpose? — and zeroing in on the talents and skills they possess. They then identify community issues and brainstorm innovative solutions that can be built into a business.

Along the way, they meet with successful local entrepreneurs like the owner of a chain of gyms and the founder of the EventNoire event curation and ticketing program. Because Mendenhall believes in expanding participants’ horizons beyond their neighborhoods by exposing them to new experiences, they also take field trips that range from tours of corporate headquarters to activities like learning to sail.

Last year’s budding moguls focused on mental health as a major problem in their community and sketched out a line of clothing featuring positive messages about self-love. The group created products, produced a fashion show, and sold their merchandise at MMI’s online store and retail space in Bronzeville.

Mendenhall can tell success stories about dozens of MMI participants, like the young man who joined the program as a seventh grader and eventually created his own clothing brand that he still runs today. After participating in a HBCU tour his freshman year of high school, he now attends Clark Atlanta University, becoming the first in his family to attend college.

His experience reflects MMI’s profound impact: In post-program surveys, 90% of participants said that MMI made them more committed to their educational goals; 93% found a sense of purpose and meaning in their experiences in the program; and 100% said that they discovered career pathways aligned to their life goals.

“There’s that age-old saying: Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” Mendenhall says. “We create opportunities for young men, whether that’s helping them get a job or helping them make one for themselves. And we do it through practical, applicable knowledge along with social/emotional learning, self-esteem building, and life-skills building. That’s how we’re transforming the way young men live and lead in their communities.”

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