Chicago Urban League Ten-Year Anniversary

“To 10 years of awesome service and to 100 more years,” proclaimed Jason Johnson as he raised a glass to the crowd that filled Savage Smyth last Wednesday.

Smartly dressed guests mingled around cocktail tables topped with yellow roses. They enjoyed food and drink while a DJ played music from the stage.

Johnson, who is the Director of Entrepreneurship at the Chicago Urban League, and the other guests were celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the League’s Entrepreneurship Center. Or as it was re-christened that night — the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

The name change was a way for the center to “step into our next decade with a spirit of innovation,” Johnson said.

The Center is part of the Chicago Urban League — a nearly 100-year-old organization that believes a strong African American community makes a stronger Chicago. The League works for economic, educational and social progress for African Americans.

One way to create this progress is by fostering business ownership. The Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation was formed to help African Americans launch, grow and sustain businesses. Numerous examples of these businesses could be seen at the anniversary event — from the vendors providing delicious food to the speakers detailing their successful forays into entrepreneurship.

The first of two keynote speakers was Stephanie Hickman, president and CEO of Trice Construction Company. She told her story of leaving a vice president role at Exelon to re-open a construction company her uncles and father had begun decades before. When she started, Hickman partook in the nextONE program at the Center, a nine-month business acceleration program.

It has since been expanded to four different programs — nextSTEP, nextLevel, nextDEAL and nextCONNECTION — and is “a powerful force to launch, grow and sustain businesses,” Hickman said.

It was tough going for Trice Construction at first, as the company struggled to land contracts. Each time she became discouraged though, Hickman thought of how hard her family had worked. Fifty years prior, her father and uncles — four young African American men — had started the company in Chicago.

“If they could do it then, we know we can do it now,” Hickman proclaimed, garnering approving applause from the audience.

Trice Construction now has 130 employees, several major contracts and last year, it grew by 70 percent. Hickman offered some practical advice to the crowd, urging them to hire a good team, understand the trends affecting their business, and cultivate their network. Most importantly, she counseled them to do something they love.

“Your work should always be about more than money,” Hickman said. “My role is now connected to my soul.”

While Trice Construction was rooted in decades of entrepreneurship, the second keynote speaker’s company was as cutting-edge as they come. Trevor Wilkins is the co-founder and CEO of Kudzoo, an app that rewards students for good grades with deals, scholarship opportunities, concert tickets, giveaways, etc.

Kudzoo was an idea Wilkins and his co-founder, Logan Cohen, came up with in college, pitching it as part of a business incubator at their school. They won funding and the app quickly grew to half a million student users throughout all 50 states.

While their growth has been explosive, Wilkins admitted that the company has had its pitfalls — and that more investors said no to them than said yes — but “we’ve learned a ton of valuable lessons.”

Success, he said, comes down to awareness and understanding and he urged the audience to keep their head on a swivel and pursue every opportunity when it came to their business, especially incubators and pitch competitions.

“I’m tired of being the only brown face in these conversations,” Wilkins said. “We cannot afford not to have a seat at this table.”

The audience cheered in agreement.

“We owe a debt to the people who have come before us,” he said.

Including the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, which has spent the last 10 years laying the groundwork and fostering growth within the African American community. A mission they will continue to pursue for the next decade and beyond.