Inner-city small-biz incubator project garners $600,000

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Sunshine Gospel Ministries, an independent nonprofit that will open a small-business incubator in the Woodlawn community next month, will announce Thursday a $600,000 commitment from Madison Dearborn Partners managing director Jim Perry to expand its work.

Of the total, $100,000 is an upfront pledge and the remaining $500,000 must be matched by Sunshine, said Joel Hamernick, Sunshine’s executive director, in an exclusive interview with the Sun-Times.

Sunshine’s first incubator is slated to open in August in a formerly abandoned building at 501 E. 61st St., in a largely vacant stretch of 61st Street between Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Cottage Grove Avenue.

Coffee shop Greenline Coffee, the first business to be launched in the incubator,is to open in about a week.

Hamernick said Sunshine hopes to use the new funding to open a second small-business incubator this fall on Chicago’s West Side and a third by the fall of 2015, possibly on the Southwest Side or Far South Side.

The organization is looking for the second incubator site in the Austin or West Garfield Park neighborhoods, he said.

The new incubators will employ part-time instructors to help teach classes and lead workshops.

The long-term goal is to create 45 new businesses each year and 60 new jobs each year.

“Our plan is to be in a position to serve 200 entrepreneurs annually within three years,” Hamernick said. “The number 200 includes those in our training program and those involved in coaching and mentoring as a follow up to the training program.”

Perry could not be reached for comment.

Sunshine aims to teach promising entrepreneurs how to manage capital, leverage technology and wisely choose growth opportunities.

The two-stage venture comprises a 12-week Business Leadership Academy, followed by free “accelerator services” — one-on-one services such as mentoring and coaching — for academy graduates. The classes — the third round of attendees will “graduate” on Thursday — cost about $2,500 per student, but scholarships can cover 90 percent of the total.

Jittaun Priest-Graves, 43, of Bronzeville, owner of Something Creative by JT, said the 12-week academy taught her to get more aggressive about marketing her business, which specializes in painting artistic finishes in businesses and in people’s homes.

Priest-Graves painted a cubism-inspired mosaic on the ceiling of Greenline Coffee.

“I was doing everything by word-of-mouth,” said the mother of three children ages 4, 8 and 17.

Now, she plans to write a blog with how-to advice on home décor, and compile an email list of blog readers.

Priest-Graves said she is heartened that Sunshine Enterprises provides a mentoring program after the classwork.

“They are very personable; you can ask them anything,” she said.

Sunshine’s greater initiative centers around the latest buzzword in inner-city economic development: microenterprise.

“We want to identify hundreds of small entrepreneurs in Woodlawn and throughout the South Side, many who are running their businesses on the side while working for employers,” Hamernick said.

The project is modeled on a successful program run by Rising Tide Capital, a 9-year-old nonprofit based in Jersey City, N.J., that has graduated 750 small-business owners from its academy and seen 300 of them operate successfully, employing people other than the sole owner.

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