Neighborhood Leaders Hone Communications, Business Skills
Running a small business is tough enough when economic times are good. When they’re bad, as in recent years, they’re exponentially harder. But help’s on the way. Earlier this spring, LISC Chicago brought together community and economic developers from 14 Chicago neighborhoods to discuss programs and communications efforts that might make their jobs easier.
Lawndale Christian Development Corporation's Tracie Worthy says there's no "cookie cutter" answer for how all neighborhoods can handle their communications needs.
Bral Spight, executive director of Chicago's 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative, a practical business management education program that helps small business owners develop the skills they need to grow their companies, described how his program could help them become better business operators.
The initiative – led by Goldman Sachs and administered in Chicago through Goldman Sachs, the City of Chicago, and City Colleges of Chicago – includes $25 million in loans and educational grants to Chicago-area small businesses. Goldman plans to have 600 Chicago small businesses go through the program over the next five to 10 years.
“It’s a great resource and a great opportunity to interact with other growing new businesses,” said Spight. “These folks are the future of our economy, and this is something you can bring to your neighborhood to help your community grow.”
The program focuses on giving small business owners greater access to business education, financial capital and business support services. Participants in the program will gain practical business knowledge and skills that can be put to work immediately, such as contract negotiation, marketing, accounting and people management. April 23 is the deadline to apply for the next group which will begin July 15, 2012. The learning program consists of 11 sessions on Fridays with one-on-one mentoring.
Tom Otto, of the West Humboldt Park Development Council, says neighborhood portals can be excellent vehicles through which community groups can communicate with each other and a wider audience.
“One thing we’ve heard since we first started hosting these luncheons is the need to connect small businesses with new resources,” said Joel Bookman, director of programs for LISC Chicago. “The 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative is really among the best in the country in providing educational and training support. The curriculum is outstanding, and we wanted to make sure that neighborhood organizations around Chicago were aware of this opportunity.”
The economic developers who met to learn about the 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative also had a vibrant conversation about the challenges neighborhood development corporations and local chambers of commerce have in communicating their work to investors, business owners, and the community.
“The perception of the neighborhoods that we work in are far different than the reality of those neighborhoods, and a significant challenge we face is bridging that gap,” said Roger Sosa, business recruitment manager of Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. “If positive stories were told, business owners would have a much different relationship with their communities.”
Todd Wolcott of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation agreed: “The main communication problem we have is perception,” he said. “There’s a misperception about what North Lawndale is, and we need to transform people’s views so that they see that it’s a good area to come in and start a business.”
Many of the challenges identified were present in each of the neighborhoods represented at the meeting. In addition to combating negative perceptions of the market, the difficulty of engaging business owners, moving from paper newsletters to electronic communication, and communicating with people who do not have access to the internet and email were frequently cited as pressing issues.
While development leaders in many Chicago neighborhoods reported facing similar challenges, successful communication strategies varied greatly from community to community. Tom Otto of the West Humboldt Park Development Council, for example, remarked on the futility of connecting with business owners in West Humboldt Park through platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. But in Rogers Park, social media has been a successful tool in bringing residents and businesses to the Rogers Park Farmers Market.
Small Chicago businesses, such as this one on West 26th Street in Little Village, are encouraged to apply for special business training through Chicago's 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative, led by Goldman Sachs and administered by the City of Chicago and City Colleges of Chicago.
Eric Young Smith
“There is no cookie cutter answer,” said Tracie Worthy of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation. “For some neighborhoods electronic communication will work, but sometimes old fashioned community organizing principles – doing the hand-to-hand work engaging with business owners – is often the most effective.”
One way of communicating that generated great interest in the group was community portals, an online forum for neighborhood businesses, organizations, and residents to share stories, events, and listings with others.
“It’s a great way of communicating about the opportunities, partnerships, and successes that we’re having now,” said Tom Otto, citing the Humboldt Park Portal. How to best use community portals will be the topic of discussion during LISC’s next brown bag luncheon, which takes place on Friday, May 11th at LISC’s offices at135 S. LaSalle St.
Subsequent meetings are on the second Fridays of July, September, and November, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at 135 S. LaSalle St.on the 22nd floor. For more information about future brown-bags and to RSVP to the events, contact Maria Hernandez at email@example.com, or 312-422-9567.
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