Oliver Ruff was one of nearly 80 people who attended the November graduation ceremony in the Parasol Room of the Civic Center.

Last fall, 20 minority entrepreneurs, most from Evanston’s West Side, received a boost for their businesses. They enrolled in a 12-week Saturday course that offered practical advice about how to  grow a small business. The Community Business Academy offered by Chicago-based Sunshine Enterprises covers core issues such as bookkeeping, marketing and credit-building.

Robin Rue Simmons, a west-side businesswoman herself, and Paul Zalmezak, economic development coordinator for the City of Evanston, had each been thinking about how to help minority businessmen and women, especially those who operate small businesses.

“This is something that I’ve been very passionate about for a long time,” Ms. Simmons told the RoundTable. She had seen a need for this type of training “because community members, friends and family” came to her for information and advice about their businesses and about dealing with the City.

On the City’s side, Mr. Zalmezak said he had been trying to “identify Evanston-based partners to create a home-grown education/training program for minority entrepreneurs but had been unsuccessful until discovering Sunshine Enterprises and meeting Sunshine Enterprises’ Executive Director Joel Hamernick at an entrepreneurship forum in Chicago in early summer of 2015.”

Later in the summer Mr. Zalmezak, Ms. Simmons and Kevin Brown, the City’s Youth and Young Adult Programs manager, traveled to the headquarters of Sunshine Enterprises in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago. They met with Mr. Hamernick and his staff and toured their classroom, co-working spaces and coffee shop. 

“I thought we needed that in Evanston,” Mr. Zalmezak said. He added, “I was impressed with what they do down there and more impressed with how Robin related to them. Most individuals don’t know how [to grow a business]. They’re making money, but they don’t know how to grow their businesses.”

Sunshine Enterprises had been looking to expand to other neighborhoods, but this area was not even under consideration.  “We knew that we wanted to end up serving another community,” Mr. Hamernick said. “We did not have the Evanston/Rogers Park area on our radar. I met Paul [Zalmezak] and he said what we were doing was well-suited to a need in West Evansotn. We started learning about the needs there and believed there was a strong alignment. It ran from ‘This is sort of interesting’ to ‘This is a really good fit,’” said Mr. Hamernick.

Sunshine Enterprises is the first licensee of Rising Tide Capital of Jersey City, N.J., a non-profit organization whose mission is “to assist struggling individuals and communities to build strong businesses which transform lives, strengthen families, and build sustainable communities,” according to its website, risingtidecapital.org.

The curriculum and the philosophy behind it were developed by Rising Tide, Mr. Hamernick said, and the course is “designed to be led by an instructor with a degree of trust of everyone in the room.”  

Ms. Simmons, said Mr. Hamernick, “really understood the state of businesses there [in West Evanston] and understood the lack of support.”

“Sunshine Enterprises already had the curriculum in place,” Ms. Simmons said; “we had the need and the people.”

The first class – 18 women and two men – coalesced around Ms. Simmons’s contacts. She shared the information with a network of friends, posted the information on Facebook, spoke at the Central Evanston Business Association and at the Minority Business Convention at Family Focus. Mr. Zalmezak posted the information on the City’s economic development website, evanstonedge.com, and on social media.

Each of the participants came with a business plan, as requested on Sunshine’s application form. The class members said that “made them start the class with their own goals in mind.” Although they were all aspiring businesspeople, some had never made that first start, Ms. Simmons said.

One, however, “had been in business for 14 years, but financials have always intimidated her. … Since she was intimidated, she was never able to grow her business,” Ms. Simmons said. But by week eight of the class, the businesswoman had increased her sales. The business is “now focusing on corporate orders and seasonal orders,” said Ms. Simmons.

The class had a supportive rather than competitive atmosphere, Ms. Simmons said, “Everyone encouraged each other and motivated each other. … These very busy working adults sacrificed the time, and we had very nearly perfect attendance.” Sometimes it seemed like the class itself was a business launch, as some class members would bring in samples of their food for the class to critique.

The cohort graduated in November, with Sunshine Enterprises footing the bill for this pilot class. About 80 persons attended the Graduation in the Parasol Room of the Civic Center, including Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Aldermen Peter Braithwaite and Delores Holmes and local businessman Hecky Powell, the keynote speaker.

 “I have a very special interest in minority businesses on the West Side. Having done business in Evanston for so long without support, it’s important to share with my community. I am so excited that I’m able to do so now,” said Ms. Simmons, who is now the North Side Program Coordinator for Sunshine Enterprises.

Sunshine Enterprises, itself started as a micro-business of Sunshine Gospel Ministries of Chicago in 2012, tracks its Business Academy graduates in three areas: business, jobs and revenue, Mr. Hamernick said.   Success for Sunshine is that an average of 50% of the graduates have their businesses still in operation five years after the program ended for them; that a business was able to hire at least one employee – even if it is the proprietor himself or herself; and that the business is generating revenue.

The City is supporting Sunshine in the form of three consecutive $50,000 grants to cover the cost of additional Business Academy sessions, asking for regular reports back to City Council.

 “We’re excited and very honored that the City believes in this program and has given us the funding to go forward for a year,” Ms. Simmons said. 

Mr. Zalmezak said that, even though there are no concrete results yet from the first class, Council approved the grants and plans “to take it beyond 2016. … I take pride in this,” he said.

“It’s important that we have these programs geared toward a population (minority led startups/entrepreneurs) that generally has not benefited from the existing entrepreneurship support programming that has grown tremendously in recent years in Chicago, New York and Silicon Valley.  We have the resources; we have the political will. We have an engaged and willing group of people that have already experienced some level of entrepreneurial success.  But this program promises to take them into the mainstream,” said Mr. Zalmezak.

The next Community Business Academy begins Jan. 30 and will meet 10 a.m.-1 p.m. for 12 Saturdays at the Civic Center.  The application and additional information are available at sunshineenterprises.com.

The cost to participants is $250, but Mr. Hamernick said Sunshine will work with some cash-strapped businesses to help defray some but not all of the costs. “We want some demonstration of commitment,” he said.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...