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Buffeted by the COVID-19 pandemic, small businesses in Chicago are pivoting to new markets and services with help from Booth students and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

The Polsky Center’s Ascend Small Business Growth Program has been operating for three years but has never been more critical than it is in this moment. Offering free consulting services primarily to women, minority and veteran entrepreneurs in the city’s South and West sides, student-led teams are helping core community businesses affected by the pandemic to stay engaged with and in some cases grow their customers in new ways.

Most small businesses that students assist have been operating for three to five years, some for as long as 10. They are at a critical juncture: no longer startups, many have multiple employees, and they often lack management know-how that will help them reach a new level of sustainable growth.

Craig Terrill
Professor Craig Terrill serves as faculty director of the program, which connects UChicago students to small businesses in Chicago.

Pandemic-related shutdowns tightened the screws, says Craig Terrill, adjunct associate professor of marketing at Booth and the Polsky program’s faculty director.

“It's disheartening to me. This last year or two with the strong economy, our clients were just getting to the next level and everything was starting to come together,” he said.

The program has worked with over 65 companies since launching in 2017. Likely clients are identified through the center’s network of city business owners. They are paired with Booth MBA students who lead teams of University of Chicago students from a range of disciplines.

Backed by experienced business coaches and Terrill’s growth strategy expertise, the teams help clients refine their niche, drive customer acquisition and retention, and build brand from in-depth customer, competitor and company analyses. They address issues that are holding back growth and build strategies for digital and traditional marketing. Due to COVID-19, work is much more focused on pivoting business models, developing remote and digital strategies and services, and finding new customer segments.

“Entrepreneurs in the city of Chicago are so fantastic. They teach students how to make decisions quickly. Sometimes the business owner starts taking action even while the team is still finishing the final report.”

— Craig Terrill

Terrill predicts pandemic-related adjustments like these will remain the program’s focus for some time. Here are just a couple of recent successes:

  • A food producer and retailer quickly shifted to carry-out, then catering. By the end of March, catering was out too, so they adjusted again, this time to delivery. They ended their lease and moved all food production to a second remote kitchen. Student consultants focused on keeping the store’s brand in the community with a fresh marketing strategy that promoted their new services.

     

  • A hydroponics farm on the city’s South Side had been supplying microgreens through a major distributor to local restaurants for five years. When the pandemic hit and restaurants shut down, the farm focused on direct-to-consumer online sales with some delivering on its own. As volume grows, the farm may buy a van, leaving the old distributor model behind for good.

“It’s one of the potential silver linings in this,” Terrill says. “It’s forcing a much faster evolution of their digital efforts—ordering, delivery, operations, customer engagement, and new channels of marketing. Many of these companies may have gotten there eventually, but the pandemic is forcing the pace.”

Even without a shutdown, consulting with small business owners is an immersion in reality for the students. Thinking fast on their feet without the luxury of extensive data is often a new experience for them.

“Entrepreneurs in the city of Chicago are so fantastic,” Terrill says. “They teach students how to make decisions quickly. Sometimes the business owner starts taking action even while the team is still finishing the final report.”

Students also see how much business owners care about their customers and the work they do.

“It’s less academic and more emotional. I’m always hopeful the Booth students will witness that personal passion for a business and look for that themselves in their own careers.”

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