‘Goodcity Chicago’ leader aims to help minority entrepreneurs
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Would you rappel down the 35 stories of the downtown Hyatt Regency Chicago?
What if it were legal and for a good cause?
“Rappelling and starting a business or nonprofit are quite comparable, if you think about it,” says Jimmy Lee, president of Goodcity Chicago.
His 30-year-old not-for-profit organization is sponsoring “Over the Edge,” a fund-raiser in which participants will rappel down the Hyatt the weekend of July 21-23 — individually or in teams — to support Goodcity’s “INVEST Chicago” initiative, which funds nonprofit and business startups run by minorities and women in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.
“Much like rappelling, starting a business can be exciting yet unnerving, and, more than likely, someone will encounter their fair share of ups and downs,” says the 39-year-old Lee, who’s run the South Loop nonprofit for five years.
The incubator has long helped minority and women entrepreneurs. Last September, it launched this latest initiative, supporting entrepreneurs in underserved communities. It provides $500 to $1,000 grants to applicants with ideas deemed to have potential, $25,000 for those ideas that then show further promise and then help including coaching, consulting and management to help startups flourish.
“We just really believe there are some good ideas in places outside of downtown Chicago, that just because you didn’t graduate from Stanford or Harvard or University of Chicago doesn’t mean you don’t want to make a difference in your community,” Lee says.
“Most of the people we work with never graduated from college,” he says. “Some barely graduated high school. But if you live in Englewood or Roseland or Little Village, you’re the best person to solve the problems in your community. By taking that initial risk, our hope is that other funders will say, ‘Hey, if Goodcity is willing to invest in them, maybe we will, too.’ ”
Goodcity has a diverse and growing roster of nonprofits and businesses.
Daissy Dominguez, a John Marshall Law School graduate, founded one of those, serving her Latino community through the Dominguez Legal Justice Center, which focuses on immigration and landlord-tenant disputes.
And there’s Nadiah Mohajir, a public health professional who serves her Muslim community through HEART Women & Girls. Her nonprofit provides health education programming to Muslim women and girls, aiming to break through cultural barriers and raise awareness on issues like sexual violence.
“We’re heading into our seventh year, but up until maybe two years ago we were super part-time,” says Mohajir, 36, of Hyde Park-Kenwood. “We were doing a lot of our work in the Chicago area, but our involvement in a high-profile sexual assault case increased our visibility. Now, we’re actually doing programming in Chicago, L.A. and D.C.”
She was referring to a 2015 sexual abuse case involving Muslim leader Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, founder of the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, who was accused of sexually abusing an employee and an underage student at the school. Victims first disclosed the abuse to HEART Women & Girls.
“When the first young woman came forward with the allegations in 2014, this was a very prominent imam, and we were the only organization that publicly supported her,” Mohajir says. “Within 48 hours, we got dozens of emails from survivors alleging similar assaults by this same perpetrator.”
Saleem pleaded guilty last year.
Two years ago, Anna Bethune, a Jamaican student completing her Ph.D. in learning sciences at Northwestern University, co-founded Brave Initiatives, a nonprofit that teaches high school girls computer-coding. It’s received support from tech companies Motorola and Sage.
“In Jamaica, we have problems very similar to Chicago — high poverty, high crime rates in the inner city, youth lacking access to resources and opportunities,” says Bethune, 28.
“I was interested in whether or not we could get young people, and particularly young women, involved in solving some of those challenges they face in their communities because I don’t think the youth voice and vision is really represented in leadership circles,” she says.
Lee says supporting minority entrepreneurs is a personal mission. His parents immigrated from China in the 1970s, arriving with nothing. Today, the family operates a successful restaurant. Lee’s career has included four years working for Gov. George Ryan as special assistant for Asian-American outreach and two years working for President George W. Bush, overseeing a White House Initiative on Asian Americans.
“When my parents first came to this country, it’s not like anybody gave them anything,” Lee says. “They worked hard. So I have a certain soft spot for people who are really overlooked but have the capacity to really do well, just like my parents.”