Polsky Center Revitalizes Small Business Growth Program with New Funding from JPMorgan Chase

Local business owners joined UChicago mentors, students, faculty, and staff at the Polsky Exchange Open House on Sept. 8, 2022. (Photo credit: John Zich)

The University of Chicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is expanding programming that fuels local small business growth and improves the economic health of communities.

Funded by a $400,000 grant from JPMorgan Chase as part its nationwide Ascend program, the Polsky Center’s Small Business Growth Program (SBGP) is tripling in length to support clients in their implementation of effective growth strategies. The goal is to help small businesses on Chicago’s South and West Sides break the $1 million revenue mark, so that 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 the Polsky Exchange, which runs the Polsky Center’s community-facing programming. “Not only are we providing technical assistance and expertise from the world-class Booth School of Business, but also the means by which to execute that expertise to achieve meaningful growth.”

Abigail Ingram

The Polsky Center collaborated with the University’s Office of Civic Engagement to engage with JPMorgan Chase’s Ascend program, which partners with top universities and institutions to provide business assistance and opportunities for minority-owned, women-owned, and veteran-owned businesses in major metropolitan areas. According to Ascend, the median White-owned firm has revenue 1.5 times that of the median Latinx-owned firm and 5 times that of the median African American-owned firm.

Since it launched in 2017, the Polsky Center’s SBGP has received annual Ascend grants to run a 10-week engagement with small business clients, who work with teams of UChicago student consultants to develop strategies for tackling their specific business challenges. After clients requested help 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 vital to prosperous cities,” said Joanna Trotter, head of Chicago Philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase. “We have seen firsthand how supporting entrepreneurs of color to get to scale is key to unlocking the kind of opportunity that lifts entire communities. We are proud to expand our investment in the Small Business Growth Program to support and grow these innovative efforts.”

With the new funding, the SBGP will support business clients through three phases: (1) a 10-week Discovery phase that includes weekly meetings with faculty coaches and a student team to build a unique strategy for business growth; (2) a 10-week Planning phase to introduce clients to service providers and plan strategy execution, with continued advisement by coaches and students; and (3) a 10-week Implementation phase that allows clients to deploy up to $5,000 in services to approved vendors for plan implementation, with ongoing support from coaches and the Polsky Center team. Those vendors, who do everything from app development to content creation for marketing needs, are all BIPOC or women-owned businesses.

The program will also connect its B2B clients with procurement opportunities at the University as well as partners Chartwells Higher Education and Corporate Coalition of Chicago.

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

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

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

Some 135 small businesses have participated in the SBGP since 2017, 95% of them minority-owned and 72% women-owned business. More than 80% reported increased business success that enabled business owners to pay themselves, and 60% reported increased family income, according to data collected by third party evaluator Equitable Evaluation Practice. “They helped me understand who my target market is and also 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 in a different way.”

In addition, 286 students have trained and worked with clients as consultants for SBGP, more than a quarter of them MBA students at Chicago Booth. The MBAs lead the projects while, in the past, most consultants were UChicago undergrads and some graduate students from various departments.

Craig Terrill

The program is overseen by Faculty Director Craig Terrill, adjunct associate professor of marketing at Chicago Booth, who teaches the non-credit-bearing course that provides the business growth methodology and trains the student consultants. Students receive a stipend to participate.

Backed by experienced business coaches and Terrill’s growth strategy expertise, the teams help clients refine their niche, drive customer acquisition and retention, and create implementable strategies from customer, competitor, and company analyses 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, community, and the products and services they provide,” Terrill said. “They have big goals and the energy to move quickly, they just need a little help in figuring a few things out. I love that the students also learn from the owners, and get to witness a personal passion for a business that they too might experience in their own careers.”

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