Entrepreneurs Are Key to Strengthening Black Economy

The key to success in life is refusing to take “no” for an answer.

That was the message from keynote speakers including Chicago City Treasurer Stephanie Neely, ’89, at the Black Business and Economic Forecast October 29 at Gleacher Center, an event sponsored by the Chicago Booth Black Alumni Association.

Neely, who stressed the importance of building small businesses, saving, and investing in oneself, said she often hears from potential entrepreneurs who tell her how the bank turned them down. “We in society have become addicted to immediate gratification. And we don’t understand that ‘No’ does not mean ‘no’ forever,” she said. “Our young entrepreneurs don’t have the patience or the vision to keep coming at it.”

Young entrepreneurs need to be willing to save and then put up some of their own money, “to have skin in the game,” to obtain a bank loan, Neely said.

Neely said her office supports small business. In Chicago more than 42,000 active business licenses — or 92 percent — go to small business owners, she said. “I believe that small businesses are the backbone of our economy, both in the city and in our nation,” she said.

Her office holds a Small Business Expo and sponsors a small business loan program to ensure access to affordable capital, she said. The Small Business Development Loan Program was launched in 2009. Since then, in partnership with ACCION Chicago, more than $300,000 has gone out to more than 30 small businesses, she said.

As treasurer, Neely is in charge of about a $5 billion portfolio. Her office has saved taxpayers about $5 million by managing its investments in-house, she said. About 60 percent of those trades are executed with women, minority, and disabled-person broker dealers, she said.

With this strategy, her office has consistently met its benchmark of exceeding the 90-day Treasury bill rate, she said.Neely has also launched a citywide initiative called “Save It, Spend It, Grow It” to encourage Chicago families to become more financially savvy. One third of Chicagoans lack checking or savings accounts, she said.

“My advice for this recent economic crisis was, and remains, invest in yourself,” Neely said.
“Become the wisest and most dedicated manager of your own finances as possible.”

That means learning how to “save first,” so that you have something of your own to invest when you want to start a business.

Neeley shared the keynote with Steven Rogers, a Kellogg School of Management professor, who said entrepreneurship is “what our national economy so desperately needs through our economic malaise.”

He said current job growth won’t come from existing Fortune 500 companies but from the Inc. 500 companies. A recent Kaufmann Foundation study showed that in 2007, companies that were less than five years old created 67 percent of all new jobs, he said.

“And who will save the black and other minority communities, which are drowning in despicable unemployment numbers that are 50 percent greater than the general population? My friends, it will be on the backs and the shoulders of African-American and other minority entrepreneurs,” Rogers said.

Shaelyn Otikor, a student in the Evening MBA Program, said she appreciated the message about never taking “no” for an answer and putting off instant gratification for persistence. “We overlook the advantages of long-term planning and diligence,” she said.

— Mary Sue Penn