Fuel Needed to Ignite Entrepreneurial Spirit

04/09/2015 03:54 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015

Chicago's African American community is unrivaled in its burning entrepreneurial spirit. It began with Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, the city's founder and first recorded resident, and has continued with business icons including John H. and Eunice Johnson of Ebony/Jet and Edward Gardner of Soft Sheen hair and beauty products. These individuals built successful businesses that served primarily African Americans, hired people of color and were crucial drivers in building the Black middle class.

In time, Black entrepreneurs also found success serving the broader community, igniting economic development and careers across the city. Count among them John Rogers of Ariel Capital to Oprah Winfrey, who sparked the revitalization of the West Loop by locating her Harpo Studios there.

With such a legacy, it's no wonder there are more Black-owned businesses in Cook County than in any county in the nation. But many of the iconic businesses are gone. And, though there's obviously still a spark, the entrepreneurial fire does not burn as brightly as it once did.

That's because there are still too many barriers to African Americans doing well in business. Lack of access to capital and tactics that limit capacity building have set many on a proverbial treadmill, moving but not really going anywhere.

That hurts the Black community, because entrepreneurs are its backbone. They create jobs and consumer demand and help support neighborhood development. But businesses need fuel through opportunity, credit and capital to do this. Historically, access to capital has been challenging for minority business owners, even those in good credit standing. That's the devil we know. But another retardant to the entrepreneurial flame has been minority set-aside and supplier diversity programs. Designed to widen the pool of suppliers getting access to government and corporate work, they often hinder growth by awarding minority and women-owned firms a limited piece of the pie instead of basing allotment on their skills and capacity.

Minority business accelerator programs can help. But their structure also often limits growth with strict requirements and size restrictions. Ironic. As soon as a business becomes too large, it no longer counts - another problem with set-aside programs, which graduate businesses out of the program once they hit a revenue benchmark.

Because of the deep connection between a strong entrepreneurial and business sector and healthy communities and neighborhoods, it is critical that we address the barriers limiting the growth of the African American business.

On April 30, the Chicago Urban League will do just that at its 2015 SUMMIT luncheon, "Transformational Change: Igniting the Entrepreneurial Spirit," at the Hilton Chicago.
We will focus on how we can help more entrepreneurs get on the path to growth and job creation.

Our keynote speaker will be Selim A. Bassoul, chairman and CEO of Middleby Corp., a global leader in commercial cooking equipment, beverage solutions and ultra-premium residential appliances and industrial processing. As a member of the Chicago Urban League board, he is passionate about strengthening communities by supporting entrepreneurs, innovation and job creation.

We will also be honoring: Kenneth Coats, who combined background checks with technology to help mitigate security risks for organizations and communities, with his KENTECH recognized by Inc. magazine as one of the 500 fastest growing companies; Charlie Tribbett and Larry Baker, investment bankers and co-founders of Bolstr, a 4-year-old crowd-funding firm that helps start-ups in consumer, retail, and manufacturing raise and preserve capital; Riana Lynn, founder of FoodTrace, which connects consumers, restaurants, distributors and farms with innovative supply chain management tools she developed; Dr. Shawn L. Jackson, Deputy Chief of Teaching and Learning for the Chicago Public Schools who developed a personalized learning framework that supports meaningful technology integration for all students and extended that to his Parent University; and Erika Allen, Chicago and national director of Growing Power, an urban agriculture project founded by her father, Will, to bring healthy and diverse food options to inner-city and rural communities.

I invite you to the SUMMIT. Come and be inspired, and maybe even spark your interest in becoming an entrepreneur.