A $1 million grant from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation to support entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds in Chicago will go to major players 1871 and UI Labs as well as specialty groups Blue1647, Bunker Labs and i.c. stars.
The recipients make up the first phase of a three-year Blackstone Challenge project that could award grants totaling $3.4 million for organizations in Chicago that help diverse entrepreneurs start or grow companies.
The grants will be awarded on July 1 by the charitable arm of the New York-based firm that owns the Willis Tower. They will support organizations providing mentoring, career advice, business building and event planning help, said Jon Gray, a Highland Park native who is head of global real estate at Blackstone.
“What was key here was we didn’t just focus on one specific geography or one specific group,” Gray said. “We’re trying to get a network to cover the whole ecosystem of entrepreneurs that may be underserved.”
He said organizations from the first cohort that demonstrate success — based on how many entrepreneurs they support and jobs they help create, among other metrics — may receive more grant money in the future. The foundation may also solicit fresh proposals for the remaining funds, Gray said.
Gray said the goal of the Blackstone Challenge, which was first announced in January, is to accelerate entrepreneurial growth without leaving any groups behind.
The foundation received some 50 applications and chose the eight recipients in concert with World Business Chicago, the city’s economic development group overseen by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, based on the strength of their track records and proposals.
“By investing in organizations that support diverse entrepreneurs we create economic opportunities that reach all parts of Chicago,” Emanuel said in a statement. “We are incredibly grateful that Chicago was chosen as the pilot city for the Blackstone Challenge program, and look forward to seeing it generate jobs and growth as we build on its success.”
Here are the members of the first cohort of the Blackstone Challenge, and their projects:
• Bethel New Life will receive $100,000 to add a training program for technology entrepreneurs on Chicago’s West Side.
“The short term result is collectively generating income and creating jobs for new and existing technology businesses here on the West Side, which will eventually, hopefully, have a tremendous impact on the alleviation of poverty,” said Bethel New Life president and CEO Ed Coleman.
• BLUE1647, a tech hub with locations in Chicago, St. Louis, Compton and other cities, will put its $150,000 grant toward expanding its BlueIncubate accelerator. It offers companies and entrepreneurs workspace, membership and networking opportunities through that program.
• Bunker Labs, which supports military veteran entrepreneurs, will receive $150,000 to expand its online offerings to include all of its in-person programming.
“(This) allows us to reach people that are in other parts of the city, people that are homebound or disabled, people that are on active duty or have been activated in Reserves, or really anywhere around the world,” said Bunker Labs CEO Todd Connor ⇒.
• 1871, the Merchandise Mart-based tech hub, will use its $150,000 grant to support digitization of its events and content for online distribution. CEO Howard Tullman ⇒ teased the 1871 Community Curriculum Project at a City Club of Chicago luncheon in March.
“We’re building new digital systems and content libraries that will permit us to share all of the resources and all of what’s going on (at 1871) with the whole city, because we want to impact more than just downtown,” he said at the time.
• i.c. stars, which runs a technology leadership and workforce development program for inner-city adults, will get $100,000 to expand its Enterprise Next startup training and incubator program. It plans to use the funds to hire a staffer to support a cohort of 20 teams, up from 13 last year.
“We see there’s a real need to not only foster and incubate but to work with the entrepreneurs, to scale the entrepreneurs, in order to support more minority businesses,” said co-founder and president Sandee Kastrul ⇒.
• Future Founders, which supports young entrepreneurs, will receive $125,000 to spur development of businesses run by millennial women, people of color, veterans and immigrants.
“The grant will support a new four-step program that will create a wide funnel to engage aspiring diverse millennial entrepreneurs and funnel the highest potential ones into an intensive cohort focused on venture development,” president and CEO Scott Issen wrote in an email to Blue Sky.
• UI Labs, which fosters innovation in urban planning and manufacturing, will receive $100,000. With those funds, it will create a partnership between its City Digital project and civic tech organization Colony 5 to support community startups exploring smart city opportunities.
“We’re excited to receive this award, which we’ll use to further our existing efforts to incorporate startups and entrepreneurs as we pilot new smart infrastructure technologies,” said UI Labs CEO Caralynn Nowinski Collens ⇒ in an emailed statement.
• Women’s Business Development Center will use $125,000 to grow its ScaleUp program to West Rogers Park and South Chicago. The program will offer education, mentoring and support.