Marlen Garcia: Building a web of support in Rogers Park

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Tooba Hanif (left) and Daood Shah of Chicago Math and Science Academy discuss the website they created for Pet Portraiture, a Rogers Park business. Photo by Marlen Garcia.

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In the Rogers Park neighborhood, more than 50 percent of businesses do not have an online presence. That means they have no website or even a Facebook page.

The Rogers Park Business Alliance came up with the statistic two years ago when it partnered with an entrepreneurial class from Northwestern University for a survey of neighborhood shops and restaurants.

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About the same time the research was completed, the neighborhood business group was approached by Lumity, a Chicago nonprofit that partners with Chicago Public Schools, as well as Waukegan High School, to expose students to science, technology, engineering and math, commonly called STEM.

Kids in underserved communities often lack access to technology, and their introduction to STEM comes late. Lumity is trying to bridge the gap by offering students hands-on programs, including an after-school and summer program for website design.

A partnership evolved between the groups in Rogers Park. Lumity students who attend Chicago Math and Science Academy learned website design and began soliciting businesses to create and maintain websites under the guidance of staff and coaches from local companies. Their group is called Rogers Park Web Creators.

“We learned how to communicate with clients, how to conduct meetings,” Daood Shah, who is moving on to Oakton Community College later this month, said.

We talked about how nerve-wracking client meetings can be. “This is real life,” said Shah. “It’s not like school.”

When the students give presentations or meet with clients, they are dressed professionally. If the clients want video links, photo galleries or appointment forms on their websites, the students install them.

The businesses get a bargain. They pay about $450 to $600 to the nonprofit, a fraction of what web agencies charge. The students earn pocket money and sometimes prizes, such as laptops, for winning design contests.

“I love it,” Emmah Camara, who owns Emmah’s Hair Braiding on Morse Avenue, told two students this week as she checked on the progress of her new website.

Small businesses across the U.S. have been slow to embrace the internet as a marketing tool. About 50 percent of small businesses nationwide have no websites, according to a survey by Clutch research firm.

Think about it: If you want to see a menu for an established chain restaurant, you will have no trouble finding its website. But if you want to see the specials for a small neighborhood place, there is a good chance you won’t find them on the web.

“The businesses are struggling to survive,” Carolina Juarez of the Rogers Park Business Alliance said. Owners of small shops and restaurants tend to devote themselves, by necessity, to day-to-day operations of their shops. Many are far from being internet savvy.

With this project, the businesses get a new marketing arm; the students get traction in a field hot with jobs. Some have completed paid internships in Chicago. Lumity Executive Director Kara Kennedy said she wants to eventually replicate the program on the South and West Sides.

“’You guys are building a portfolio,’” instructor Jeffery Beckham, who owns Black Box Creative Inc., said he tells the students. They already have impressive starter jobs on their resumes.

We know teenagers love to surf the web and popular apps. It’s even better when Chicago teens are creating content for them.


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