Category: News

Chicago MBDA Business Center, an incredible resource for minority businesses

During these challenging times, ensuring minority businesses have access to resources to grow and flourish is essential. And we’re fortunate in Chicago to have a wealth of resources available to minority businesses at the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Chicago Business Center, located at 216 W. Jackson Boulevard, Suite 600.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the MBDA Business Center is operated by the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council (MSDC), an organization with a successful history of growing and supporting minority business enterprises (MBEs).

The MBDA Business Center connects minority businesses with capital, contracts, and emerging markets. And it supports the minority business community by advocating on its behalf and developing partnerships with local, state, and federal government agencies, major corporations, and banks with the overall goal of creating larger and more strategic minority entrepreneurs.

The MBDA Business Center carries out its mission by providing workshops and consultations across a diverse range of business topics such as financing, bonding assistance, mergers and acquisitions, education and training, networking, advocacy, procurement, and export and international trade assistance.

The MBDA Business Center has achieved great success to date, having assisted over 1200 MBEs obtain $2.5 billion in contracts, $800 million in financing, and create over 5,000 family-sustaining jobs.

If you happen to be a minority business owner, we encourage you to take advantage of the resources available at the MBDA Business Center, which works with businesses of all sizes and can help you connect with major-buying organizations and successfully expand your business.

And if your business is looking for an equity partner, corporate trainings, and information on how to diversify your supply chain—the MBDA Business Center can assist you and would love to discuss partnering with you.

Prior to the pandemic, you could visit the center for appointments and take workshops. Currently, the MBDA Business Center has pivoted to providing its resources and technical support virtually.

And in response to COVID-19, the Chicago MSDC launched a new initiative, the MBDA CARES Act Center; it offers training, education and counseling to help small and minority businesses recover from the pandemic. The CARES Act provides fast and direct economic assistance to American workers, families, and small businesses and preserves jobs in American industries.

North Branch Works is proud to partner with the Chicago MBDA Business Center, MBDA Cares Act Center and Chicago MSDC in our work to grow and support minority businesses in our service area.

To connect with the Chicago MBDA Center, please contact Dave Thomas (pictured right), Operator/Project Director, 312-755-2563, dthomas@chicagombdacenter.com

For more information about the MBDA Cares Act Center, please contact:
Reuben Hamilton, MBDA Cares Act Coordinator, 773-554-9338, rhamilton@chicagombdacenter.com and
Lenora Harris, MBDA Cares Act Program Assistant, 773-530-9076, lharris@chicagombdacenter.com

Image credits: Chicago MBDA Business Center

Connecting North Branch Works members to financial resources

During these challenging times for businesses, our staff is working hard to identify city, state, and federal funding opportunities and help our members secure them.

Recently, we were thrilled to help a member successfully obtain a $20k grant from the State of Illinois’ Business Interruption Grant (BIG) program. This grant will help the business cover the cost of having to suspend operations between March and April due to the pandemic.

Our staff did the research and determined our member was eligible. Then we contacted our member; we’re grateful she applied promptly. Along the way, we facilitated a connection between the business owner and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which proved valuable when the state later decided to extend the grant deadline, making it possible for her to apply.

It’s great to see state resources coming into our service area to support our member businesses. And we’re continuing to encourage and support members in applying for opportunities like Chicago’s Together Now Fund, which recently accepted applications from businesses and nonprofits for grants of up to $4,000 to cover operating expenses.

Another financial resource to keep in mind is our low-interest Small Business Loan program. We can make loans of up to $25,000 to startups and up to $50,000 to established businesses. And in some cases, we can loan larger amounts.

There’s nothing we’d like more than to support businesses right now with these resources. Please find more information about the loan program here, including the list of eligible neighborhoods.

One of the best member benefits we provide is our staff capacity to find grants and valuable opportunities for your business. We understand the demands of running a business likely consume all your time.

For this reason, we’d love to support you by doing research and advocacy on your behalf and connecting you to other businesses in the North Branch community so dollars are spent locally as much as possible.

And we’d be grateful for the opportunity to help your business secure funding like we did recently with the BIG grant. It’s a great example of the value of being a North Branch Works member.

If you’d like to join North Branch Works, please contact Steve Simmons, 773-929-5552 x2226, steve@northbranchworks.org

ChicagoMSDC strengthens minority businesses

During this time of social unrest, many businesses are looking for opportunities to advance a racially equitable future. Fortunately, the city is home to the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council (CMSDC), a corporate sponsorship-based organization with a successful history of growing and cultivating minority-owned business enterprises (MBEs).

ChicagoMSDC plays four primary roles; it certifies, develops, connects, and advocates for MBEs. The organization has corporate members and creates partnerships between major-buying organizations and minority-owned suppliers.

Founded in 1968 after social unrest rocked Chicago, ChicagoMSDC responded by launching the Chicago Business Opportunity Day, which brought together corporate and community leaders determined to create opportunities for low-income communities.

As a result of its success, this event was re-named the Chicago Business Opportunity Fair, which continues to flourish to this day as the organization’s premier annual event and is wrapping up its 53rd Annual Event.

And ChicagoMSDC is one of 23 affiliates of the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) which was founded in 1972 to increase procurement and business opportunities for minority businesses of all sizes.

Currently, ChicagoMSDC’s members include over 250 public-and-private-sector buying organizations and nearly 1,000 minority-owned businesses in Chicago, Northwest Indiana, and St. Louis. And this partnership is incredibly successful; buying members report spending over $3 billion annually while MBEs employ over 20,000 workers in family-sustaining jobs.

In order to certify as an MBE, at least 51% of a business must be owned by people who are Asian, Black, Hispanic, or Native American.  If your business meets this requirement, you don’t have to do it alone; ChicagoMSDC can help you–it certifies over 300 MBEs annually, usually taking about 90 days to certify.

And August is National Black Business Month. Be sure to follow ChicagoMSDC on Twitter and Facebook for success stories of Black-owned businesses in the Chicago region. You can also look them up by searching #blackbizmonthchi and #chicagomsdc.

Recently, Chicago MSDC welcomed a new President and CEO, J. Vincent Williams (right). He brings extensive experience managing small business development and succession and building valuable community partnerships from the public and private sector. He knows that we have an unprecedented moment to push for supplier diversity.

The good news is many businesses and community leaders are looking to ChicagoMSDC for leadership during these challenging times. Vince and his staff have never been busier.

North Branch Works is honored to partner with ChicagoMSDC in our work to grow and strengthen minority-owned businesses in our service area. We highly recommend reaching out to ChicagoMSDC if you’d like to get involved and support minority-owned business development and family-sustaining jobs in Chicagoland.

Please contact Shondra Watson-Wilson, Director of Strategic Partnerships, 773-755-2552 or swatsonwilson@chicagomsdc.org.

Image credits: Chicago MSDC

Rockwell on the River, an incredible destination along Chicago River

Summer is not over yet; you can have plenty of socially-distant fun on the cobblestone streets at Rockwell on the River, a dynamic craft food and events space in Avondale along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Located at 3057 N. Rockwell St. in between Elston and Belmont Avenues, the company began seven years ago when developer Paul Levy repurposed industrial buildings from what had been a tannery.

Reflecting his vision of an artisanal food space like no other in the city, the complex has a diverse and growing mix of local and family-owned small businesses including Metropolitan Brewing’s taproom and brewery, Metropolis Coffee, and Judson and Moore Distillery.

The company’s long-term goal is to be known as a destination for the best food Chicago has to offer and an asset to the Avondale neighborhood.

And Rockwell on the River expects to add several new food-based businesses to its lineup soon. If you happen to be in the food industry, the complex offers customized kitchen spaces available for rent and often hosts pop-up cafes.

Currently, Catered by Design offers a pop up café on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. And please take advantage of the company’s two-for-one sandwich deal, using this QVR code.

After stopping by food vendors, you can take in the scenic Chicago River and see nature up close by renting kayaks from Wateriders Kayak Rentals and boats from Chicago Electric Boats—both companies operate from the complex’s dock behind the buildings.

And eventually the plan is to add a Chicago Water Taxi stop operated by Wendella to the Rockwell dock.

Because this stretch of the Chicago River is used primarily for recreation, it’s a great place to escape from the grid and enjoy the natural world, including blue herons, which were spotted in the area recently.

And if you visit, you can rest assured knowing all the businesses at Rockwell on the River follow strict COVID-19 protocols, including requiring social distancing and face masks, and cleaning surfaces regularly.

Along with providing space for food businesses to succeed, Rockwell on the River has a breathtaking 20,000 sq. foot event space overlooking the river (see below right) that can be rented for weddings, corporate gatherings, and galas.

The grounds also feature beautiful offices that can accommodate firms of all sizes. Available offices range in space from hundreds to thousands of square feet.

North Branch Works is proud to welcome Rockwell on the River as our newest member. We’re grateful our members on Rockwell Street can safely operate and excited about partnering with them to strengthen existing businesses, attract new ones, and bring family-sustaining jobs to the neighborhood.

If you’d like to rent space or connect with Rockwell on the River, please contact Jeff DeLong, Director of Marketing & Programming, 312-498-6382, jdelong@bridgeportart.com

Image credits: Rockwell on the River

Join Wendella Boats for tours & events

Because of COVID-19, the long-term viability of Chicago’s small businesses in the events and entertainment field like Wendella Boats depends upon the support of local residents and businesses.

A family-owned, multi-generational small business, Wendella Boats offers breath-taking architecture boat tours, hosts corporate events, and operates the popular water taxis which safely transport people to multiple destinations along the Chicago River.

Founded in 1935 by a Swedish immigrant who bravely purchased the company’s first boat during the Great Depression, Wendella Boats played a big role in helping Chicago and the country through major events such as CTA worker strikes, World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and 9-11.

Prior to the pandemic, Wendella Boats employed over three-hundred people and kept them in jobs year-round by having them repair boats during the winter months.

And these are good jobs that pay competitive wages without requiring much education or experience beyond high school.  As an employee benefit and workforce development strategy, the company provides scholarships to help employees obtain their Coast Guard credentials.

Now, because revenues have fallen 90%, the company has been forced to reduce its workforce to one-hundred and furlough 60% of its staff. Wendella Boats also recently made the difficult decision to suspend water taxi service. Just last year, water taxis transported 415,000 people to and from various riverfront destinations.

With tourism and hotel occupancy in the central business district down sharply, the company is counting on Chicago residents and local companies to take architecture tours and book events.

The good news is Wendella Boats provides the safest and socially-distant entertainment available. It’s a great way to see Chicago’s awe-inspiring architecture up close, learn more about the city, and relax and unwind.

The company’s ninety-five-foot steel tour boats feature an open air upper deck (pictured above) and plenty of space to comfortably social distance. And you can rest assured knowing the company follows all the COVID-19 protocols, including cleaning the boats vigorously after each trip, taking temperatures of its staff, requiring face masks, and enforcing social distancing.

Because of these measures, only one-hundred people are allowed on the boat per outing. And while following these guidelines is a must for public safety, it also means the company is down one-third of its revenue even if it sells out the boat.

Despite these challenging times, Wendella Boats continues to show its incredible commitment to the city. A portion of the proceeds from its bar service is donated every week to local nonprofits.

North Branch Works is proud to count Wendella Boats among our members and grateful it can safely host tours. We highly recommend hopping on an architecture boat tour, booking an event, and referring family, friends, and colleagues.

Any support you can provide is greatly appreciated. You can purchase tickets for an architecture tour by stopping by Wendella’s dock (see below) at 400 N. Michigan or going here.

Guild Row poised for successful opening

In North Branch Works’ last newsletter, we talked about the challenges of pivoting in a pandemic. This month, let’s consider a different and equally daunting challenge: opening a new business in one.

Located on Rockwell just between Belmont and the Rockwell on the River//Metropolitan Brewing complex, Guild Row is a unique social enterprise founded by local residents Elyse Agnello (also the architect of the multi-building campus), Jim Lasko (civic artist and former Executive Director of Redmoon Theater) and Mike Healy (an award winning urbanist and neighborhood development professional).

These three partners began meeting around Lasko’s kitchen table on Tuesday nights back in 2015. Through many hours of conversation, one truth kept emerging: society and social media had “optimized” connections between people to such an extent as to make them almost meaningless. Similarly, the profligacy of smartphone functionality was becoming such that one could scarcely turn on a light or flush a toilet without the abstract disintermediation of a smartphone screen tuned to the right app.

This was a grain worth cutting against, Agnello, Lasko, and Healy decided.  They set out to build a neighborhood-scale social club predicated on people making real-world connections, around physical things.  Craft and artisanal booms had been the single greatest trend in consumer goods in the prior decade. Why not give people the chance to get their hands dirty trying their own talents and energy at homebrewing, at woodwork, at leathercraft, at bread baking? Why not give people the commodious environs in which to let neighbor-to-neighbor relationships flourish, especially after having gotten their hands dirty together?

The three pitched their concept to close-to-the-ground investors. They scoured Chicago for the right venue: the type of legacy manufacturing structures that had powered the city for generations, and had also formented long-lasting and meaningful relationships between the people who worked within. In late 2016, they connected with Hu-Friedy Mfg. Co., entering into  contract to buy the dental manufacturer’s original home buildings on Rockwell St. just along the Chicago River.

The transfer of ownership was completed in early 2017. Financing was secured in 2018, and Guild Row was born.

A “social club for the artisanally curious,” Guild Row now boasts fixed learning, crafting and programming infrastructure: a teaching kitchen (“The Cooking Lab”), a wood/craft shop, dynamic programming space in which a bevy of Chicago artisans will teach their crafts to Guild Row’s members. Married to these hands-on spaces are the most time-tested of community commons: Guild Hall, a members lounge featuring cafe fare by day and libationary offerings by night; The Rockwell Garden, a marvelous outdoor space replete with fire pit, live flame grills, generous arborture and the like; The Belmont and Avondale Rooms, dynamic spaces for intimate gatherings, programming and more.

The membership community of Guild Row is already starting to flourish, with nearly 200 members as of this writing. Those interested in learning more can avail themselves of one of the club’s regular tours, offered on Fridays at 4 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m.  To register for a tour, please visit app.guildrow.co.


This is a guest blog authored by Mike Healy, co-founder of Guild Row. Mike and his colleagues are invaluable members of NBW and the thriving Rockwell St./Belmont Ave. business community.

Four Star Family Cyclery improves lives during COVID-19

After overcoming a fear of cycling, Elsbeth Cool (pictured above) purchased her first cargo bike as an adult, taking a leap that ultimately inspired her to launch a small business selling cargo bikes.

Now, as the owner of Four Star Family Cyclery, she gets to help customers and their families experience the many benefits of choosing to bike for everyday transportation.

A woman-owned, family business in Avondale, Four Star Family Cyclery specializes in selling cargo, family, and electric-assist bikes. And you can also stop in to rent a bike and for bike accessories, including helmets, locks, and general repairs like having a flat fixed.

And if you haven’t heard of cargo bikes, they are bikes that have been adapted so they can carry heavy and bulky loads, including passengers like children. They vary by design and come in two, three, or four-wheel forms and with or without electric assistance.

Four Star Family Cyclery opened its doors in 2016, operating in a 700 sq. foot space on Western Avenue. Because few bike shops in Chicago would carry cargo bikes at the time, Elsbeth courageously started on a small scale.

Once the business succeeded, it needed a larger space. Elsbeth desired a location in a family-friendly neighborhood with walkable streets. As it happened, Four Star Family Cyclery moved to its current location, (3101 W. Diversey Ave. see below), which is in front of the CTA’s #76 Diversey Bus stop at Albany St., right before the onset of COVID-19.

Although the pandemic created uncertainty before peak bicycling season in Chicago, the good news is the company has been extremely busy keeping up with strong demand. And by encouraging a healthy, sustainable and socially-distant way of getting around, the business is making a major contribution to the city as the local economy recovers.

Four Star Family Cyclery is committed to providing customers with high-quality, individualized attention. That’s the primary reason new customers are asked to sign up for hourly appointments at no cost, which you can do here.

If you sign up for an appointment, you’ll receive an hour to talk about bikes with Elsbeth as well as the opportunity to do test rides on scenic Logan Boulevard.

There’s nothing Elsbeth and her team enjoy more than helping people who haven’t biked in years gain the confidence necessary to become year-round cyclists. It’s common for the team to hear customers love their cargo bikes so much they ride them frequently and often sell their cars.

And Four Star Family Cyclery is exactly the type of sustainable business that North Branch Works is working hard to support through our advocacy for policies that create a business-friendly climate and by connecting local businesses to each other for mutually beneficial economic development.

If you’d like to explore the variety of cargo bikes, need bike accessories, or have questions about biking, please contact Elsbeth at elsbeth@fourstarfamilycyclery.com, 224-358-5455.

Image credits: Four Star Family Cyclery

City should evaluate bars and taprooms based on compliance

Citing an increase in positive coronavirus cases, Mayor Lightfoot recently decided to eliminate indoor service at bars and taprooms operating without a food license.

While we appreciate Mayor Lightfoot’s data-driven leadership during the pandemic, North Branch Works sees this decision as a one-size-fits-all policy approach that unfairly groups all bars and taprooms in the same category.

Instead, we urge Mayor Lightfoot to make compliance with COVID-19 regulations the deciding factor in whether or not bars and taprooms can offer indoor service.

Because of our strong relationships with bars and taprooms in our service area, we know they are highly committed to the health, safety, and welfare of their employees and patrons. And just as important, they have the capacity to carry out these services in a safe and responsible manner.

North Branch Works’ letter to Mayor Lightfoot highlights these and other points.

Chicago remains a vibrant city in large part because of our diverse range of small businesses like neighborhood taverns and bars. Not only do these establishments strengthen communities through jobs and economic development, they also make important cultural contributions.

There’s no question that positive cases are increasing in certain zip codes. But it’s difficult to understand the rationale for closing all bars and taprooms across the city during a time when there’s overwhelming demand for jobs and economic development.

And we see establishments without food licenses as opportunities to encourage creative entrepreneurship with food-based businesses. For example, many small family-owned businesses like Calihan Catering are facing unprecedented challenges, so we could advance polices that foster partnerships between businesses with mutual needs.

And that’s exactly the type of partnership that we’re working hard to build along the North Branch by advancing policies that make it a premier area to do business and work, connecting members with each other, and sustaining new businesses.

North Branch Works stands ready to support Mayor Lightfoot and Members of City Council as we work toward a safe and healthy economic recovery.

Victory for bars and taprooms

In a major win for bars and taprooms, Mayor Lori Lightfoot allowed establishments that serve alcohol only to re-open on June 17. Prior to this time, these businesses were unable to re-open under the City of Chicago’s Phase Three Reopening Plan.

North Branch Works and our members successfully advocated for this policy change, pointing out that Chicago is home to more breweries than any other city in the country and highlighting the many ways they support the local economy, jobs, and vibrancy of our neighborhoods.

We also had confidence that bars and taprooms with a track record of success could easily comply with COVID-19 guidelines such as social distancing, limiting the number of seated patrons, and providing laminated menus.

North Branch Works’ letter to Mayor Lightfoot highlights these and other important points.

We applaud Mayor Lightfoot’s decision to allow taprooms and breweries to re-open and are committed to working with establishments who prioritize the health and safety of their patrons.

This policy win is a great reminder that persistent advocacy yields results. And it also demonstrates the type of advocacy we can do with elected officials to support you and your business.

We recognize that running a small business in the best of times comes with many challenges, including often a limited-capacity to influence the business climate around you.

If you can, please consider joining North Branch Works as a dues-paying member. And please let us know if there are any policy changes that we can advance that can help you achieve success.

With questions/comments, please contact Steve Simmons, Director of Business and Economic Development, at 773-929-5552 x2226, steve@northbranchworks.org.

Image credit: Maplewood Brewery and Distillery

Community council advising Sterling Bay & city on Lincoln Yards

North Branch Works (NBW) is honored to have been selected as a community representative for the Lincoln Yards Community Advisory Council (LYCAC), which held its first meeting on June 15.

Lincoln Yards is a 55-acre, mixed-use development project (pictured) along the North Branch of the Chicago River that will run between North and Webster Avenues and across parts of Bucktown and Lincoln Park.

The purpose of LYCAC is to engage with the City of Chicago and Sterling Bay, the developer of Lincoln Yards, on a regular and consistent basis to review project status, including infrastructure design and serve as a community conduit for project concerns. The 14-member council includes four members from the 2nd Ward Zoning Board, three Lincoln Park/Bucktown community members, and subject matter experts in infrastructure, housing, planning, economic development, minority and women business enterprise participation, Tax Increment Financing, open space and the environment.

The meeting enabled council members to meet with each other and become acquainted with the developers and city officials who brought the project forward after approval of the North Branch Framework Plan. After presentations from Sterling Bay and the City of Chicago, members were able to ask questions and talk about their concerns which stimulated a productive dialogue.

Going forward, the council will meet quarterly with city officials and Sterling Bay to advise on various aspects of the project such as transportation, land use, open space, and business recruitment. Throughout the three-year commitment to participate on the council, NBW will advocate for the creation of living-wage job opportunities, especially opportunities that do not require an advanced degree. In order to make job opportunities accessible to all Chicagoans, NBW will push for investments in public transit options that help people get to places of employment safely and easily. These investments are critical to ensure traffic congestion does not increase with new development.

Although Lincoln Yards was approved as a Planned Development and TIF District in 2019, the role of LYCAC will be to advise Sterling Bay and the city on ways it can implement a project that’s mindful of adjacent communities and addresses community concerns. NBW appreciates the responsibility it has to ensure this project strengthens residential communities, supports business opportunities and entrepreneurship, and creates jobs accessible to people throughout Chicago.

Do you have ideas and/or concerns about Lincoln Yards that you’d like advisory council to address? Please contact Jonathan Snyder, Executive Director, at 773-929-5552, jonathan@northbranchworks.org

Image credits: Sterling Bay