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Chicago nonprofits win big in Google ‘Shark Tank’ for economic development ideas

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Former Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte is among the panel of judges for the Impact Challenge Illinois. | Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

And the awards for best ideas to create economic opportunities across the state of Illinois go to …

Google will announce Thursday the 10 winners of its Impact Challenge Illinois, the mega-tech firm’s first statewide competition to bolster nonprofits that have bold ideas to stimulate economic mobility in disadvantaged communities.

Chicago snagged six of the $75,000 grants, the other four went Downstate — the 10 whittled from nearly 170 proposals from nonprofits working in every corner of the state.

Karen Sauder, head of Google in Chicago.

“I was really inspired by the number of applications we received because it shows the creativity and diversity among our states’ nonprofit community. We know there is not just one solution to creating economic opportunity,” Karen Sauder, head of Google in Chicago, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday.

Now, the winners — groups ranging from the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) that’s creating transitional jobs for the formerly incarcerated, and After School Matters, which provides wrap-around services for disconnected Chicago youth — will vie for another $250,000 going up for grabs.

“We’re absolutely all abuzz about this,” Brenda Palms-Barber, founding executive director and CEO of the 20-year-old NLEN, told the Sun-Times on Wednesday. Her nonprofit’s widely known for its Sweet Beginnings program employing former inmates in bee-keeping and production of honey and skin care products.

Brenda Palms-Barber is founding executive director and CEO of the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), a 20-year-old nonprofit widely known for its Sweet Beginnings program employing former inmates in bee-keeping and production of honey and skin care products. | Provided photo

“This is going to help us create more sweet jobs for individuals that have had brushes with the law, and even more importantly, it will allow us to create a toolbox for replication in similar communities,” Palms-Barber said. “It’s an amazing opportunity for us to pollinate our model across the country, and even around the world.”

Aside from NLEN and After School Matters, Chicago winners include True Star Foundation, which is teaching youth digital skills and entrepreneurship; Cara Chicago, which provides job training and placement to low-income families; Future Founders Foundation, a group that nurtures young adult entrepreneurs; and Manufacturing Renaissance, which prepares underserved youth for manufacturing jobs.

Downstate, winners include the Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois, which offers a S.T.E.M. program for girls in rural counties; Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, creating community-owned grocery stores in small towns; Southeastern Illinois Community Foundation, which offers a cross-county collaborative workspace and resources for entrepreneurs; and the YWCA of McLean County, providing job training for formerly incarcerated women.

Google’s version of TV’s “Shark Tank,” the Impact Challenge was judged by a dream team panel that included former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, founder of the Edgar Fellows program, and former Chicago Bear Matt Forte, founder of the “What’s Your Forte?” charity.

Rounding out the panel were two foundation heads — Joyce Foundation President Ellen Alberding and Chicago Community Trust’s Chief Operation Officer Andrea Saenz; Illinois State University President Larry Dietz; and Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to former first lady Michelle Obama, now partner at Buckley.

“What we wanted to do was fund the innovative ideas and empower our advisers to use their local expertise to decide,” Sauder said.

But the public will have the final say with online voting for best of the 10 opening Thursday and running through Feb. 14. That winner of the additional $250K will then be announced Feb. 15 at Google’s Chicago headquarters.

While the technology giant has previously offered such competitions elsewhere, those were city-focused in Cleveland, Columbia, Oklahoma City and Pittsburgh.

The Impact Challenge Illinois, with its $1 million grant bucket, was the first to be opened up to an entire state.