As part of their 20-month fellowships at L1, these three South Side creative entrepreneurs will move into their first brick-and-mortar space—700 square feet furnished with custom-made millwork designed and fabricated by local master craftsman Norman Teague. By developing and implementing sustainable growth models that support both in-person and online sales, they seek to simultaneously scale their businesses while bolstering the economic vitality of the community.
“The L1 storefront is a welcome and timely addition to Garfield Boulevard, and signals that high-quality commerce is no longer just a possibility but a reality well-suited to succeed on the South Side, right here in Washington Park,” said 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell. “I am supportive of efforts that recognize the tremendous homegrown talent that exists in this community. We need partnerships like this between small business and the University of Chicago. Garfield Boulevard is an excellent location for ambitious creative entrepreneurs to build upon the arts and culture activity that has made the Arts Block a community destination for the last seven years.”
“I'm originally from the South Side of Chicago, born and raised,” said Joi of Hemp Heals Body Shop. “This is my home base, my people—people that look like me, and the consumers that I want to help heal from the inside out in a natural way. Because of the high rates of ailments such as hypertension, high cholesterol and obesity affecting the African American community, I wanted these areas/communities to be my starting point, and for them to see and support a successful entrepreneur/business owner from our community.”
The inaugural cohort of creative entrepreneurs was selected to participate in L1’s 20-month small business fellowship from a pool of 55 applicants through an open call application and jury review process. The fellowship was developed in partnership with Proximity, the urban planning and social impact arm of The Silver Room Foundation. The jury was composed of small business owners, small business development foundation staff and project partners on the South Side.
To qualify for the fellowship, applicants had to be a previously established business. Jury evaluation of applicants also considered four factors: (1) quality and/or craftsmanship of their arts-based service or product; (2) readiness of the applicant to take advantage of the opportunity, and demonstration that participation in the accelerator would impact ability to scale and grow; (3) commitment to the South Side and an established South Side customer base; and (4) relevance of the product or service to the neighborhood landscape and ecology of other cultural amenities in Washington Park, as well as fit with the other offerings in the store.
“CTA is proud to see its oldest original ‘L’ station house being transformed into a vibrant retail and educational space for local entrepreneurs that reflects the dynamic new energy present in the Washington Park community,” said CTA President Dorval R. Carter, Jr. “We applaud the work UChicago’s Arts + Public Life is doing and we look forward to this dynamic program inspiring even more artistic, retail and economic growth in the area.”
Even with an established customer base and strong annual sales, a move to a brick-and-mortar location is particularly challenging for African American business owners right now. According to federal employment surveys, the nation lost nearly 450,000 active African American business owners during the first quarter of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This reality has propelled L1 project partners, Arts + Public Life and Proximity, to modify the L1 Creative Business Accelerator service model and curriculum so that both virtual growth and traditional retail are integrated into the fellows’ plans for scaling their businesses.
During their 20-month fellowships, L1 fellows will receive subsidized retail space, elevation-focused mentorship, and extensive training and educational resources from experts tailored to their specific business needs. They will also receive guidance on business strategy, management, leadership, social responsibility, sales, marketing, brand positioning, finance and business law. Additional curricular support and services will be provided through collaborations with UChicago’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship.
“The biggest challenge I have faced being a creative entrepreneur has been adequate funding to support my vision,” said Polk, who founded Solo Noir in 2011. “Funding is essential to compete in this competitive landscape. To have the support of L1 to assist me in growing and scaling my business, and help celebrate the milestones, is unmeasurable. As a small business owner, I look for opportunities that validate me being on the right track, and this opportunity is that validation.”