By Kim Piekos
When Bob Crawford Jr. retired from a successful career at 76, he couldn’t picture himself living a quiet life parked at a country club. Instead, the Lake Forest resident chose to reinvest his passion for entrepreneurialism into the lives of budding business owners in disadvantaged areas in Chicago.
“I can’t tell you how strongly I feel that the work we have been doing the past seven years is benefitting America,” he said.
"I want to support people who have already demonstrated that they have that entrepreneurial spirit and a good idea," says Lake Forest resident Bob Crawford.
Shortly after retiring, Crawford spent three days a week over six months becoming familiar with the needs of under-resourced neighborhoods on the South and West sides of Chicago. He met with community leaders, councilmen and religious leaders, walked the streets, spoke to residents and sat in on entrepreneurial training programs at social service agencies.
“I came away seeing a need and knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said.
In 2016, working in partnership with the Chicago Community Trust and Allies for Community Business (A4CB), Crawford created the Neighborhood Entrepreneurship Lab (NEL) with a mission to support and empower entrepreneurs of color to strengthen challenged communities.
“There is nothing more important in capitalism,” he said.
Approximately 120 applications are submitted for the 30 spots each year. Business owners come to NEL via A4CB in Chicago, which provides support and connections for people looking to grow their businesses. NEL looks for entrepreneurs who have been in business two to four years and are in their 30s and 40s. About 55 percent are female.
“I’m not looking to get people started in their businesses – finding your calling is a soul thing,” Crawford explained. “But I do want to support people who have already demonstrated that they have that entrepreneurial spirit and a good idea.”
Entrepreneurs who are accepted into the nine-month program receive coaching with a mentor, typically mid-level managers at major Chicago corporations or retired executives. The mentors help the business owner develop his or her business plan and connect them with investors, advisors and strategists along the way.
Entrepreneurs also participate in 90-minute Zoom training sessions every three weeks on finance, accounting, marketing, branding, lease negotiation, e-commerce and legal implications. A $20,000 grant is awarded to the entrepreneur at the end of the fifth month to help grow his or her business, including purchasing capital equipment, inventory or signing a new lease for a larger space to house their business.
Crawford is proud that, of the 93 NEL graduates, 91 remain in business.
“This is great proof that the NEL concept works,” he said. “The entrepreneurs become role models for their communities and inspiration for others to start businesses which will further strengthen their communities. This is the beginning of creating generational wealth for their families and communities.”
Graduates of the program have expanded companies including Honey Baby Naturals, which creates healthy hair products for multicultural families; Happy Hands Cleaning Service that exclusively uses eco-friendly commercial cleaning products; Saigon Sisters, distributors of Vietnamese and Thai foods in three locations across the city; Old Arthur’s Barbecue Products, carrying on a family legacy of pitmasters dating back to the slave era; Taylor’s Tacos, a pop-up catering company specializing in street tacos; Tubby’s Taste Vegan Cookies; as well as others in the lawnmower and snowplow business, bridal dresses for larger women, a balloon business and numerous others.
Crawford’s devotion to encouraging capitalism in under-resourced areas stems from his childhood. Growing up, he moved frequently as a result of his father’s career, and often lived in rugged neighborhoods.
“I saw firsthand that residents of these areas had little opportunity to be successful,” he says.
That exposure -- along with his first experience making money as a paper boy -- ignited his passion for capitalism.
“I became consumed with growing a bank account,” he remembers. “Entrepreneurialism was boiling inside me.”
Though he went the corporate route with Proctor & Gamble at the start of his career, entrepreneurialism ultimately won out as Crawford started Brook Furniture Rental and turned it into a successful company over 36 years, selling it in 2014.
Crawford is hoping to expand the NEL initiative into Lake County soon, focusing on the communities of Waukegan and North Chicago.
“The success we have had helping entrepreneurs in less-fortunate areas grow their businesses needs to be shared with other such communities across the country,” he said.
Crawford is determined to do all he can to inch this initiative forward. “I hope that down the road there will be others to take this even further, but in the meantime, I’m not leaving the battlefield at 85.”
Anyone interested in being a mentor for or a donor to NEL can learn more at www.a4cb.org/services/neighborhood-entrepreneurship-lab.