Entrepreneurship lab seeks to increase small business owners of color
From interior design to sociology to three jobs at education nonprofits, Danielle Tubbs’ journey to baking took a bit of a circuitous path. The Miami transplant, now an East Garfield Park resident, is trying to make her passion for baking boldly flavored, Jamaican-inspired vegan, nut and soy-free cookies into a household name. Tubbs filed for an LLC and bought a domain name eight years ago for Tubby’s Taste Vegan Cookies. Since then, her work has been featured on ”Good Morning America,” ABC 7, WGN and NBC 5.
Living blocks from the business incubator The Hatchery Chicago, Tubbs has been taking food classes at the site since 2015 and producing cookies that meld mango, coconut and lime; grapefruit, pineapple and hibiscus; and coconut, oatmeal and cinnamon from the site since September 2020. It was with plans to bring on more help and machinery that she applied to be a member of the sixth cohort of the Allies for Community Business’ Neighborhood Entrepreneurship Lab in 2021.
Developed in partnership with the Chicago Community Trust, NEL gives entrepreneurs a $20,000 grant and pairs them with advisers to provide assistance and networking opportunities. The lab experience is the idea of Robert Crawford Jr., created to build entrepreneurialism, strengthen neighborhoods and increase employment. Since 2016, the lab has aided 60 small businesses across the city.
“I believe in capitalism so strongly … the way it’s been a cornerstone of the American experience, the small farmer, everything,” he said about why he created the endeavor with the Chicago Community Trust. “I felt very strongly that where we’ve missed as a country is we haven’t encouraged enough people that hadn’t come from more affluent backgrounds, particularly people who are Black, brown, Native Americans. I just felt strongly that would strengthen the community so strongly.”
With his late father’s business acumen as inspiration, he went to the trust’s former president and CEO, Terry Mazany, to work together to support entrepreneurialism in disadvantaged communities that need their services. A test with one entrepreneur has turned into a nine-month program where over two dozen small business owners are assigned mentors to help entrepreneurs strategize on how to grow the business with the grant money they received. Specialists in finance, technology, advertising and human resources also come to speak to cohort members.
“The $20,000 allowed me to put money toward getting into stores, which has proven challenging with the COVID climate right now,” Tubbs said. “I had goals of getting into 10 boutique grocery stores and a lot of them weren’t really bringing on new products.”
The pandemic. Supply chain disruptions. Inflation. Lack of staff. Small businesses have endured real challenges as of late. And as of January 2022, the number of open small businesses decreased by 10.4% compared with January 2020, according to an Economic Opportunity Insights Tracker, which tracks the economic effect of COVID-19. Couple that with a 2019 market study that shows significant disparities in the number of businesses along racial, ethnic, gender and geographic lines, and Crawford says that’s why the lab is needed. When individuals and neighborhoods find themselves locked out of access to resources and opportunities, the lab is one avenue of support.
Crawford says Chicago has to get small business numbers up and help those shuttered small businesses start up again.
“Entrepreneurialism is the soul of American business,” he said. “These are the people that become leaders of the community.”
Crawford spoke at a cohort graduation ceremony at The Hatchery on May 26. Tubbs was among the 25 graduates, as was Jacques Sarr, proprietor of Jacques International Language Academy in Rogers Park. Where Tubbs has been refining her wholesale practices, drumming up more awareness of the business, selling online and figuring out how to work with distributors, Sarr has been focusing on creating multiple, affordable language academy locations locally and internationally. A former freelance translator who knows nine languages, Sarr runs academies offering 16 languages to students of all ages.
“When I opened it in 2017, I wanted to make languages accessible for everybody. Not just those who can afford the luxury,” Sarr said. “My main goal — I want people with low income and their children to have access to languages.”
He will be opening a Paris academy this summer. Sarr said he couldn’t open the location without the NEL grant funds. “It’s common to go to more than one location to learn a language,” Sarr said. “I wanted to be different, go to one place and learn many languages.”
Tubbs talked strategy with her mentor and adviser every other week. Her mentor sold his own bakery and offered specific advice. As a team of one, Tubbs said it helped to have others to bounce ideas off of, to share with. They offered insights and provided accountability, and the grant money provided wiggle room for Tubbs to take more chances — all things Tubbs welcomed.
“There’s so much need in these communities for these services, and there’s a lot of business opportunities,” Crawford said. “In these communities that have been hollowed out … a store leaves and there’s an opportunity for somebody to get in there and provide some service. There’s need, and there’s also tremendous entrepreneurial spirit.”
Next year, NEL will expand its program to include five more entrepreneurs, Crawford said. Roughly 75 applications were submitted for the sixth cohort, which only had 25 openings. Applications for the seventh cohort are double that already. The new cohort will begin in September.
“Most of the companies have been in business two, three years,” Crawford said. “We’re in the process of perfecting this, but every single one (business) that we’ve invested in, they’re all still in business.”