After two years closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Chicago Booth School's Polsky Exchange has reopened to help South and West Side businesses hone and house operations.
It also has a new executive director, Abigail Ingram, a practicing attorney who launched and directed the Women in Entrepreneurship Institute at DePaul University's Driehaus College of Business, where she is a clinical faculty member.
Ingram launched DePaul's four- and eight-week track accelerator program "out of response to a lack of resources and programming available to women entrepreneurs who, the data tells us, have a higher return on investment when they do receive investment but are far less likely to actually get investment," she said in an interview.
During her three-year tenure at the Women in Entrepreneurship Institute, 69% of the businesses she worked with increased their revenues. Three-quarters of them began hiring employees. Over that time period, only 8% of women-owned businesses were increasing revenues, and 10% of women-owned businesses nationwide have employees.
That experience will come in handy at the Polsky Center, the U. of C.'s entrepreneurship and business research-acceleration network. (Other Polsky branches focus on commercializing technology developed at labs across the university working with U. of C. students and associates.)
In the past, the Polsky Exchange, 1452 E. 53rd St., 2nd Floor, has brought in successful entrepreneurs as speakers, held workshops, and run business incubators and accelerators. It has a large amount of co-working space available by membership in a building that opened in 2014. About 800 community members had memberships before the pandemic, and more than 150 businesses participated in other community-facing programming like the Small Business Growth Program, which continued to operate during the pandemic.
The organization can help any variety of businesses: manufacturing, food and restaurants, consumer packaged goods, professional services, retail, real estate, construction, landscaping, visual and performing arts.
But Ingram says its mission will change because of the vast economic changes caused by the pandemic.
Thousands of entrepreneurs — students, alumni and community members — have taken advantage of the Polsky Center's services. Since taking over as executive director last month, community entrepreneurs have told her about how the Polsky Exchange has helped them access capital and the U. of C.'s resources and improve operations.
Right now, Ingram and her staff are surveying to see what the community needs in terms of business support. "Those who have an idea and are ready to launch the next business, whether it's retail, brick-and-mortar, online, the next tech company, whatever it turns out to be; and then those who have been members of the Exchange in the past," she said.
Consumer behavior has changed immensely over the past two years, but Ingram noted that many businesses have not launched online marketplaces to their business models. She said they need access to sales programming, customer-relationship management softwares to track customers through their entire shopping experiences from the point they know that the retailer exists.
Ingram said that this is not as hard as it sounds and that most operational businesses already have the information, but they haven't captured it. "They can simply ask their existing customers how they became aware of the business and the touch points until they became a customer," she said. "The end goal, through training and through customer-experience mapping, is to have customers who aren't only repeat customers, but who are actual brand ambassadors."
Teaching that can be done in a day. Sales bootcamps, in which changes in consumer behavior and how they apply to businesses are taught, can be done in a day or two. Ingram said every business must now be tech-enabled now. "People don't go to businesses that don't have websites as frequently as they would businesses with a site they can just pull up and make sure the business has legitimacy," she said.
Financial fundamentals, a longer program the Polsky Exchange previously offered, will still be offered, as will a small business growth program, a collaboration with Booth students.
As the reopening proceeds, Ingram said again that she wants members of the local business community to tell her what their needs are. People have told her they want the mentorship program to return and access to the fabrication lab, 1463 E. 53rd St., 2nd Floor, where entrepreneurs with product ideas can make prototypes.