Polsky Center revives small business growth program with new funding from JPMorgan

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In September, local business owners joined UChicago mentors, students, faculty and staff for the Polsky Exchange Open House. August 8, 2022. (Photo credit: John Zich)

The University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is expanding programs to promote the growth of local small businesses and improve the economic health of the community.

As part of its national Ascend program, JPMorgan Chase provided a $400,000 grant to triple the length of the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program (SBGP) to support clients in implementing effective growth strategies. The goal is to help small businesses on Chicago’s South and West Sides break the $1 million revenue threshold, thereby driving economic growth in the community.

“We want them to go from six figures to seven figures,” said Abigail Ingram, executive director of Polsky Exchange, which oversees community-facing projects at the Polsky Center. “We not only provide technical assistance and expertise from the world-class Booth School of Business, but also the means to execute that expertise for meaningful growth.”

Abigail Ingram

The Polsky Center, in partnership with the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, participates in JPMorgan’s Ascend program, which partners with top universities and institutions to provide business assistance and opportunities to minority, women-owned, and veteran-owned businesses in major metropolitan areas. According to According to Ascend, the median revenue of white-owned companies was 1.5 times that of Latino-owned companies and five times that of African-American-owned companies.

Since its launch in 2017, the Polsky Center’s SBGP has received an annual Ascend grant for 10 weeks of engagement with small business clients who work with a team of UChicago student advisors to develop strategies to address specific business challenges. After clients requested help implementing the recommendations, the Polsky Center revised the program to focus on implementation and extended client engagement to 30 weeks.

“Small businesses and entrepreneurs create jobs and create diverse communities that are critical to thriving cities,” said Joanna Trotter, head of philanthropy at JPMorgan in Chicago. “We’ve seen firsthand how Supporting entrepreneurs of color to scale is key to unlocking this opportunity to uplift entire communities. We are proud to expand our investment in small business growth programs to support and grow these innovative efforts.”

With the new funding, SBGP will support corporate clients through three phases: (1) a 10-week exploratory phase that includes weekly meetings with faculty coaches and student teams to develop unique business growth strategies; (2) ) a 10-week planning phase to introduce clients to service providers and plan strategy execution, with ongoing advice from coaches and students; (3) a 10-week implementation phase, with ongoing support from coaches and the Polsky Center team, Customers can deploy services up to $5,000 to an approved vendor to implement the program. These vendors, from app development to content creation for marketing needs, are BIPOC or women-owned businesses.

The program also connects its B2B clients with procurement opportunities at the university and with partners Chartwells Higher Education and the Chicago Enterprise Alliance.

Applications are currently being accepted for the next cohort, which will begin programming in January. The deadline for business clients to apply is October 21st.

>>Apply here to be a business client or student advisor.

Small Business Growth Program alumni Sylvia D. and Tiffany Joi learned about FabLab on September 9 at the Polsky Exchange Open House. August 8, 2022. (Photo credit: John Zich)

Since 2017, approximately 135 small businesses have participated in the SBGP, 95% of which are minority and 72% women-owned. According to data collected by the Equitable Evaluation Practice, a third-party evaluation agency, more than 80% of respondents reported an increase in business success, enabling business owners to pay for themselves, and 60% of respondents reported an increase in household income. “They helped me understand who my target market was and the opportunities for growth in new markets,” said program alumnus Sylvia D., a Bronzeville resident and founder of SoulPäz Bath & Body. “It made me think about my business differently.”

In addition, 286 students train and work with clients as SBGP consultants, more than a quarter of whom are Chicago Booth MBA students. MBAs lead these programs, and in the past, most advisors were UChicago undergraduates and a few graduate students from various departments.

Craig Trier

The program is overseen by Craig Terrill, an associate professor of marketing at Chicago Booth, who teaches non-credit courses, provides business growth methods and trains student advisors. Students receive a stipend for participation.

Backed by seasoned business coaches and Terrill’s growth strategy expertise, these teams help clients refine their niche markets, drive customer acquisition and retention, and develop actionable strategies based on customer, competitor and company analysis to Address issues that hinder growth.

Pairing motivated entrepreneurs with students who bring new perspectives and expertise is a winning approach. “Chicago business owners have a strong passion for their customers, their communities, and the products and services they provide,” Trier said. “They have big goals and the energy to move fast, they just need a little help to solve some problems. I love that the students also learn from the owners and witness the personal passion for the business that they may also experience in their own careers .”

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