The University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation develops programs that fuel the growth of local small businesses and improve the economic health of communities.
Funded by a $400,000 grant from JPMorgan Chase through its National Ascend Program, the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program (SBGP) triples in duration to help clients implement effective growth strategies. The goal is to help small businesses in Chicago’s south and west neighborhoods cross the $1 million revenue mark, so they can drive economic growth in their communities.
“We want them to go from six figures to seven figures,” said Abigail Ingram, executive director of Polsky Exchange, which manages community programming for the Polsky Center. “Not only do we provide the technical support and expertise of the world-class Booth School of Business, but also the means to execute that expertise to achieve significant growth.”
The Polsky Center has partnered with the University’s Office of Civic Engagement to participate in JPMorgan Chase’s Ascend program, which partners with top universities and institutions to provide business assistance and opportunities for minority-owned businesses, to women and veterans in major metropolitan areas. . According to Ascend, the median white-owned business has 1.5 times more revenue than the median Latinx-owned business and 5 times more than the median African-American-owned business.
Since its launch in 2017, the Polsky Center’s SBGP has received annual Ascend grants to host a 10-week engagement with small business clients, who work with teams of UChicago student consultants to develop strategies to address their specific business challenges. . After clients requested assistance in executing the recommendations, the Polsky Center revamped the program to focus on implementation and extended the client engagement to 30 weeks.
“Small businesses and entrepreneurs generate jobs, create diverse communities and are essential to thriving cities,” said Joanna Trotter, Chicago Philanthropy manager for JPMorgan Chase. “We’ve seen firsthand how critical supporting entrepreneurs of color to grow is to unlocking the kind of opportunity that uplifts entire communities. We’re proud to increase our investment in the Growing Small Businesses Program companies to support and develop these innovative efforts.
With the new funding, SBGP will support client companies through three phases: (1) a 10-week discovery phase that includes weekly meetings with faculty coaches and a team of students to develop a unique growth strategy of the company; (2) a 10-week planning phase to introduce clients to service providers and plan strategy execution, with ongoing coaching by coaches and students; and (3) a 10-week implementation phase that allows clients to deploy up to $5,000 in services from approved providers for plan implementation, with ongoing support from coaches and team. of the Polsky Center. These vendors, who do everything from app development to content creation for marketing needs, are all BIPOCs or women-owned businesses.
The program will also connect its B2B customers to University procurement opportunities as well as Chartwells Higher Education and Corporate Coalition of Chicago partners.
Applications are currently being accepted for the next cohort, which will begin programming in January. The application deadline for business customers is October 21.
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Some 135 small businesses have participated in the SBGP since 2017, 95% of which are minority-owned and 72% women-owned. According to data collected by third-party evaluator Equitable Evaluation Practice, more than 80% reported increased business success that enabled business owners to pay themselves, and 60% reported increased family income. “They helped me understand who my target market is and also the opportunities for growth in new markets,” said Sylvia D., program alumnus, Bronzeville resident and founder of SoulPäz Bath & Body. “It made me think about my business in a different way.”
Additionally, 286 students have trained and worked with clients as consultants for SBGP, more than a quarter of them MBA students at Chicago Booth. MBAs lead the projects whereas in the past most consultants were UChicago undergraduates and some graduate students from various departments.
The program is overseen by faculty director Craig Terrill, adjunct associate professor of marketing at Chicago Booth, who teaches the non-credit course that provides business growth methodology and trains student consultants. Students receive a stipend for participating.
Supported by experienced business coaches and Terrill’s growth strategy expertise, teams help clients refine their niche, drive customer acquisition and retention, and create actionable strategies from analytics. customers, competitors and businesses to address issues that are holding back growth.
Pairing motivated entrepreneurs with students bringing new perspectives and expertise has been a successful approach. “Chicago business owners have a strong passion for their customers, their community, and the products and services they provide,” Terrill said. “They have big goals and the energy to act fast, they just need a little help figuring things out. I love that the students also learn from the owners and witness a personal passion for a business that they too could experience in their own careers.”