By Elizabeth W. Milnikel
On April 26, the IJ Clinic on Entrepre-neurship at the University of Chicago Law School hosted its first-ever citywide conference, “Growing Opportunities: Fostering Inner-City Entrepreneurship in Chicago.” From our invitations to our banner, we invited the participants to “Start it up!” Throughout the day, speakers and audience members accepted that challenge and started up conversations, envisioned new ventures, formed new relationships, and set new ideas into action.
The conference brought together more than 100 participants, including inner-city entrepreneurs who dream of building vital businesses, professors and bankers, business advisors and policymakers. All were united by their common passion for supporting and inspiring inner-city entrepreneurship.
“You’re talking about being an entrepreneur,” he said. “It ain’t no joke. People are going to tell you, go on, get a job. But it’s bigger than that; it is about creating jobs.”
Panelists shared scientific data about existing businesses in poor communities in Chicago, business strategies for building a solid new enterprise, recommendations for government reforms, and personal stories of inspiration about entrepreneurs’ struggles and successes.
Early in the event, former IJ Clinic client Mike Davis talked about how he and his business partner broke through barriers to own their own plant, employ a dozen workers, and negotiate with nationwide grocers and Wal-Mart. Davis co-founded Tasty Delite, which makes seasoned coating mixes for chicken, pork and fish. He shared with the audience that the growing business is still a struggle, but also a great source of pride.
“You’re talking about being an entrepreneur,” he said. “It ain’t no joke. People are going to tell you, go on, get a job. But it’s bigger than that; it is about creating jobs. That’s what it’s all about, not just about helping yourself, but creating jobs and helping your community.”
Davis credited the IJ Clinic in particular for giving entrepreneurs the support they need to turn around their communities and build wealth in the community.
Themes summarized so poignantly by Davis—the daunting challenges faced by inner-city would-be entrepreneurs and the incredible value they can create—were expanded throughout the day. It was particularly moving to hear entrepreneurs speak about their role models and about times they had to forge ahead without any role model on which to rely.
IJ Clinic client Julie Welborn, who is struggling to create a cafe and bakery in a strip of vacant buildings, thanked her father for teaching her patience and shared with participants the surprising dividends of perseverance when creating a small business: “The roots have to be formed, and you don’t see anything all this time, and then all of a sudden you have this beautiful tree.”
Keynote speaker Nadine Thompson built a multi-million dollar corporation through the entrepreneurial spirit of other individuals all over the country. Her sales force—mostly African-American women—sells Warm Spirit products, including soaps, vitamins, shampoo and conditioner, in the manner they think will be most successful, and they learn how to run a business at the same time. Thompson also talked about the entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs she has known who inspired her. As a young girl in a community of immigrants, she heard countless stories of young women struggling to find employment in the careers for which they trained in their home countries. Many had to start their own businesses to survive, and it was critical that they could use skills as hairbraiders or seamstresses to build lives for themselves in a new country.
As IJ President Chip Mellor reminded us in his welcome address, it is “absolutely essential that entrepreneurs be unshackled, able to do whatever it takes to make their dreams reality.”
Big dreamers surrounded us on April 26. We were thrilled to give them an opportunity to support and challenge one another, and to build on the relationships and ideas generated at the conference. We made sure they knew that the Institute for Justice is there to help them fight for their dreams every step of the way.
Elizabeth W. Milnikel directs the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School.