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Chocolatier Uzma Sharif had reached a pivotal point in her small business’s growth. She’d been successfully selling her handcrafted chocolates at a single retail location on the South Side of Chicago, and wanted to start selling on a larger scale.

With the economic outlook uncertain, however, Sharif wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. She wanted guidance so she could start selling in stores like Whole Foods, but lacked the resources to hire the help she needed. That’s where Full-Time MBA student Jennifer Olson stepped in.

This year, Sharif’s company, Chocolat Uzma, was one of 10 small businesses on Chicago’s South and West Sides to get hands-on consulting services from Booth students through the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s Small Business Growth Program.

The program helps businesses on the city’s South and West Sides grow and scale. It’s supported by funding from JPMorgan Chase and is part of the nationwide Ascend program, which partners with top universities and institutions to support minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses.

From January through March, Olson met weekly with Sharif over Zoom and applied market research skills she gained in Booth courses such as Entrepreneurial Discovery and Marketing Strategy. She compiled critical data on sales and customers and visited competitors and potential retail partners such as Whole Foods, Dom’s, and Foxtrot, gathering information on packaging and shelf placement. The research helped Sharif better understand the competition, as well as what packaging design and materials she needed to stand out in the market.  

“I’m interested in the food industry, and I really enjoyed this chance to do something so hands on in the real world during my MBA schooling,” says Olson, a budding entrepreneur who bartended in college and hopes to eventually open a restaurant or a café with her fiancé and business partner, who’s a cook. “It was a highlight of my quarter to work on this project.”

Olson is among the first Booth students to participate in the new iteration of the six-year-old Small Business Growth Program. In the past, the program served 30 businesses each year—ten per academic quarter. But research and surveys showed small businesses wanted and needed more comprehensive support.

“From our funders to the businesses, the students to the staff and faculty that participate—all of the stakeholders are working together toward the same goals. I feel great about the direction this program is headed in.”

— Paul Cavalieri
Uzma Sharif smiling and posing in her chocolate store
Uzma Sharif, Owner of Chocolat Uzma 

In the past, participating students and business owners would create detailed plans, but implementation often never happened, says Paul Cavalieri, associate director of small business operations at the Polsky Center. “We wanted to serve fewer businesses in a more focused manner,” he says.

Now, 10 businesses participate in the program across three quarters, focusing on “the what” in the first quarter—research, scoping, and discovery; “the how” in the second—implementation planning; and implementation in the third. A different student is paired with every business during the first two quarters.

The first-quarter match between Olson and Sharif was a strong one, Cavalieri says, especially given Olson’s interest in ultimately working in the food industry after graduation.

“Jennie’s background is unique, as she has worked with teammates and colleagues from a variety of backgrounds and skill sets. And she naturally connects with people,” Cavalieri adds.

Olson spent time in Sharif’s store leading up to Valentine’s Day, conducting surveys to gather feedback directly from Sharif’s customers. The survey included questions about whether customers would follow the business online and where they would shop if Sharif didn’t have a brick-and-mortar store.

Olson, for her part, was energized by the experience. Lessons learned—including how to discover customers’ needs, making your business stand out, and taking every opportunity to share your story—will help her carry out her future plans to one day open her own restaurant, she says. “I’ve been so inspired by Uzma and the other small-business owners I got to meet through the program,” Olson says. “Their passion and determination are undeniable, and they’ve each made such a positive impact on their customers and communities. Being a part of the Polsky Small Business Program has made me even more motivated to pursue entrepreneurship in the food industry.”

Sharif says the program also had a significant impact on her. “Jennie provided us with valuable insights and recommendations based on her findings,” she explains. “The program has shown me a clearer path for achieving my goals of expanding, and with the help of Jennie’s enthusiasm, my business has been propelled in a positive direction.”

Now, during stage two of the program, Sharif is working with another Booth student to turn the research and insights she gained from Olson into concrete steps.

While the revised Small Business Growth Program is only halfway through its first cohort, Cavalieri believes that the longer engagement is already helping to build stronger bonds among the participating businesses while also allowing students to learn more by diving deeper into business planning and execution.

“From our funders to the businesses, the students to the staff and faculty that participate—all of the stakeholders are working together toward the same goals,” says Cavalieri. “I feel great about the direction this program is headed in.”


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