One of the strategies guiding The Coleman Foundation’s initial efforts to support entrepreneurs in low- and moderate-income Chicago neighborhoods is to increase the capacity of trusted, community-rooted entrepreneurship educational organizations. A recent study indicated that more than 130 community-based organizations provide some degree of service to entrepreneurs in Chicago neighborhoods. However, the quality and availability of those services does not meet current needs, let alone the future demand necessary to catalyze economic transformation of LMI neighborhoods.
Chicago Lawn is a diverse community on the southwest side of Chicago facing tough challenges. The unemployment rate is double the rate in Chicago overall, while the median household income is just over half of the citywide average. Chicago Lawn’s commercial corridors tell a familar story. With a projected 40% vacancy rate on commercial property, Chicago Lawn clearly needs new opportunities for economic growth.
The Greater Southwest Development Corporation (GSDC) recognized that local businesses in Chicago Lawn do not take advantage of micro-loans or other available capital because they lack key business and financial literacy skills as well as familiarity with the process of business lending. Many local business owners expressed a need for culturally appropriate training held locally at business-friendly hours, but didn’t have access to such a resource.
Sharing the GDSC’s commitment to entrepreneurship education as a way to stabilize and grow the local economy, The Coleman Foundation supported the launch of the Chicago Lawn Business Academy. The initiative includes a series of classes and workshops for local businesses to learn financial concepts and tools, business planning and organization, online marketing engagement, and succession planning.
This year GSDC has piloted a 4-part Basic Financials for Business class in both English and Spanish, with experiential and hands-on learning options in each session. There are currently 45 graduates of the course and a waiting list for future sessions. Their graduation ceremony recognized the hard work of local business owners while serving as a networking opportunity for partner groups.
Even in the first few months, the GSDC quickly realized that businesses are thirsty for accessible, hands-on training, though they don’t have time or knowledge about what they need to know at various stages of growth. In the next phase of the project, GSDC will continue to provide the basic course, as well as to launch a “201” level class for those who are eager to continue their path to a thriving business. Further, the Academy will identify ways to bring participating business owners together with those from other communities, to learn from each other, problem solve collectively, and build a stronger business community.