This Chicago Neighborhood Is Proving the Power of Local Business Owners

This Chicago Neighborhood Is Proving the Power of Local Business Owners

De Andre Brooks and a farm employee, Fannie Williams, both of Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood, and Dorothy Jackson of Chicago's Englewood neighborhood pick out a load of fresh produce at the Wood Street Urban Farm and Training Center in Englewood, where Whole Foods made a large contribution to the urban farm, Oct. 22, 2014.

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Why you should care

Because you don’t have to oust a community to improve it. 

OZY and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have partnered to bring you an inside look at how entrepreneurs are coming up with innovative methods to help the communities around them. Enjoy the rest of our special series here.

Woodlawn may be adjacent to the affluent neighborhood of Hyde Park in Chicago, but in many ways it feels like a totally different city.

The poverty rate in Woodlawn is double that of the city of Chicago overall.

The neighborhood also suffers from high unemployment and crime. But there’s something else you should know about this South Side neighborhood — it’s not giving up. Where similar communities have crumbled from neglect and underinvestment, or found themselves washed out with the tide of gentrification, several grassroots enterprises in Woodlawn are taking matters into their own hands. They are launching businesses specifically to create new jobs for, and teach fresh skills to, struggling residents.

Take BSD Industries. Ostensibly it launched as a manufacturer of biodegradable plastic products, but the company’s true goal is to employ Woodlawn residents and train them up in robotics — arguably one of the most marketable skills in 21st-century manufacturing — providing well-paying, high-tech jobs (BSD stands for “Building Self-Determination”). What’s more, BSD’s profits are fed back into its parent company, the Arthur M. Brazier Foundation, a Chicago facilitator that funds and connects such community projects, with a view to building a self-sustaining, neighborhood-wide network.

So far, so inspiring. And while such community-grown enterprises help create financial autonomy in underserved neighborhoods like Woodlawn, what they really need is an investment strategy to help them continue to grow. To that end, JPMorgan Chase recently sent a group of its best and brightest to work with BSD as skilled volunteers, as part of its Service Corps initiative.

We underestimated what they needed from us most — financial modeling knowledge and plans for driving revenue.

Tony Chopp, JPMorgan Chase

“We found an organization with two full-time employees wearing 15 hats each,” says volunteer Tony Chopp, JPMorgan Chase’s market director for banking in Nevada. The challenges facing small, homegrown operations like this? They desperately need the capabilities of larger companies.

Chopp and his colleagues arrived primed to help BSD plan for expansion. Instead, “we quickly realized that we were essentially working with a nonprofit in startup mode,” he explains. “We underestimated what they needed from us most — financial modeling knowledge and plans for driving revenue.” Right off the bat, Chopp cut BSD’s costs by 67 percent, simply by using his procurement experience to source cheaper materials. At the end of three weeks working with BSD, the JPMorgan Chase Service Corps team had helped the company map out how to sustain hard-earned grant funds until it started generating its own money.

Far from a straightforward “feel good” exercise, outside firms lending their skills to such projects on a cost-free, voluntary basis likely makes good business sense. The prosperity of Chicago as a city depends on all of its neighborhoods; empowering the few that are struggling helps the whole to flourish. And that makes for a more profitable landscape altogether.

Still, Woodlawn faces an uphill battle. According to the Arthur M. Brazier Foundation: “There has been progress in Woodlawn, but the work there is far from finished.” The foundation notes 61 percent of the community’s children lives in poverty; nine of 11 schools are on academic probation; and less than half of most school’s students are meeting national standardized test norms.

But the foundation’s goals — to convene BSD and social enterprises like it, and help them by “partnering with experts that can be shared across communities” — have all the makings of a sustainable solution. Even more so if those with the expertise to help believe in the benefits and contribute.

You could say it takes more than a village to raise a thriving neighborhood. It takes widespread, intentional involvement. “The work we did with BSD travels from community to community,” says Chopp. “That’s what’s exciting.”