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West Side Innovation Hub to Serve as Launching Pad for Inner City Entrepreneurs

Written by Amanda Maher

Chicago routinely made headlines in 2015—but not always for reasons its leaders would have hoped. The spike in violence, which included nearly 470 homicides, earned Chicago the reputation as one of America’s deadliest cities. The surge in violence has captured national attention. What’s missing from these stories, though, are the efforts happening behind the scenes to buck the trend.

Bethel New Life has been at the forefront of those efforts. Curbing violence is nothing new to Bethel New Life. Formed by a Lutheran church in the wake of the 1960s civil rights riots, for decades Bethel New Life has focused on creating opportunities to lift West Side residents out of poverty.

In recent years, Bethel New Life has placed a premium on creating entrepreneurship opportunities for West Side residents.

Bethel New Life partnered with the City of Chicago and the Small Business Administration to provide training and education opportunities for entrepreneurs interested in starting a business in Illinois. Their Neighborhood Business Development Center provides one-on-one business counseling, market research, business planning and loan packaging to help entrepreneurs get their ventures off the ground.

Bethel New Life also offers an Entrepreneurship Training Program through its Illinois Small Business Development Center, part of the State’s SBDC network, where early-stage businesses participate in expert-led sessions on marketing, accounting risk management, legal issues and more. At the end of the free but highly competitive 15-week program, each entrepreneur is paired up with a well-established business leader who provides mentoring throughout the following year. “Bethel helped me see that there was a way to make my business work and made the entire process smoother than if I had tried to do it on my own,” said Felicia Gills, owner of Lifestream Transportation, Inc. and participant in the Entrepreneurship Training Program, in a “Success Story” featured on Bethel New Life’s website.

These programs help launch inner city businesses and provide them with resources to be sustainable over time. But many companies have a vision for more rapid growth. For these companies, Bethel New Life launched the West Side Business Xcelerator. Companies go through three weeks of business assessment, followed by five weeks of developing a growth plan around a specific market opportunity. Teams of advisors guide the growth companies through this process and the Xcelerator’s partners provide gap loans for companies who may not otherwise qualify for traditional business loans.

These programs have all demonstrated the need for entrepreneurship support within inner city communities—areas whose entrepreneurship potential is too often overlooked.

That’s why Bethel New Life recently announced another new endeavor—the West Side Innovation Hub. The Innovation Hub will provide a place for like-minded entrepreneurs to meet, network and share their business ideas. From co-working space to makerspace, the Innovation Hub will serve as the community’s launching pad for new technology businesses. Job training in advanced manufacturing and information technology will help to ensure that once those businesses are ready to expand, they will have a pipeline of talented workers to draw upon. The center will be the first of its kind on the West Side, and it reflects a growing effort at the national level to create greater linkages between inner city residents and opportunities in the innovation economy.

Bethel New Life hopes the Innovation Hub will serve as a catalyst for economic growth in its inner city neighborhood. Expanding opportunities for entrepreneurship can allow residents of all social and economic backgrounds to thrive, and the Innovation Hub will introduce West Side residents to bountiful opportunities for them to do so.

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