An aerial view of the Carruthers Center with the Chicago skyline in the background.

Business Innovation and Growth Center’s nontraditional entrepreneurs pitch new business ventures

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Northeastern Illinois University’s Business Innovation and Growth Center’s first cohort of age 50+ entrepreneurs from the historic Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies pitched their new business plans to community “sharks” including local residents and business owners, and the AARP Foundation on Aug. 28. The event was made possible by an AARP Foundation national grant.

The age 50+ demographic is not what most people envision when thinking about entrepreneur pitch nights. Yet entrepreneurs age 50+ are the most successful new business launch category. Based upon a study of U.S. Census Bureau data, Kauffman Foundation researchers found that people age 50+ are the fastest-growing category of new entrepreneurs. An estimated 75% are still in business by Year 3, have $1+ million in revenue, and have created jobs for an average of five employees. In contrast, 75% to 80% of new business overall fail in the first year.

“This program continues NEIU’s tradition of service by providing older adults with tools, training and guidance to achieve their entrepreneurial dreams,” said Margaret Johnsson, Northeastern Instructor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, and BIG Center Executive Director. “It has been an honor and pleasure to launch and grow NEIU’s business innovation and growth programs for entrepreneurs and established businesses, and to have the wonderful opportunity to make a positive impact in the entrepreneurs’ and business owners’ lives, on the growth of their local businesses, and on the City of Chicago’s economy.”

Carruthers Center Director Andrea Evans was excited to host the first new business pitch night in the auditorium of the Bronzeville neighborhood location.

NEIU's Business Innovation and Growth (BIG) Center’s first cohort of entrepreneurs from the CCICS included:

  • The City of Chicago’s first African American female union electrical contractor and founder of Dillon Power Group (held federal contracts with the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Energy and Department of Defense), who launched an indoor farming business
  • A 20-year veteran of the Lyric Opera and Adjunct Professor of Voice at Dominican University whose OperaGram business has been previously featured on NBC News
  • A Ph.D. in Educational Policy Analysis whose educational business focuses on training family members to be caregivers, and has previously been featured in two national print publications
  • An architect/set director entrepreneur working on innovative senior co-housing solutions, previously featured on CBS News
  • A residential cleaning service (started by a mom of four) that demonstrates the Kauffman Foundation research of age 50+ entrepreneurs starting Main Street businesses with skills they already have to earn $1 million in revenue and create five jobs
  • The founder, executive producer and host of Technology Access Television (Chicago’s longest-running weekly TV show covering technology, innovation and entrepreneurship news) who is starting a smart energy company leveraging the City of Chicago’s energy re-investment laws
  • Two NEIU undergraduate student entrepreneurs launching a social Benefit Corporation to feed Chicago’s hungry while innovatively boosting local restaurant revenues, with an app and the sharing economy at the core of their business model

“According to a Kauffman Foundation study, only 1% of African Americans, only 2% of Latinx, and only 17% of women launch new businesses,” College of Business and Management Dean Michael Bedell said. “This first pitch night at NEIU’s historic Carruthers Center featured all three of these underrepresented entrepreneurship categories.”

“This grant from the AARP Foundation, and the resulting programming, directly speaks to our university’s mission to serve a diverse community,” Northeastern Assistant Professor of Psychology Lisa Hollis-Sawyer said.

The growing importance of curriculum focused on America’s aging population is emphasized by the expansion of Northeastern’s Gerontology master’s program to the Carruthers Center campus this fall.

Creating and owning a business has long been heralded as a path to financial success and economic mobility. Older adults, however, face unique hurdles when re-entering the workforce in a nontraditional capacity. NEIU’s and the AARP Foundation’s investment in these nontraditional entrepreneurs seeks to improve the lives of vulnerable populations by supporting and advancing effective solutions.

“Teaching NEIU’s BIG Center business planning course has given me the rewarding opportunity to work side-by-side with these entrepreneurs for 12 weeks to help them turn their visions into realistic business plans, each resulting in revenue projections over $1 million,” said instructor Kristen Evans, former head of consumer research, insights, analysis and strategy at Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble.

“For many older adults, self-employment and business ownership is an opportunity to change their future,” said Emily Allen, Senior Vice President AARP Foundation Programs. “AARP Foundation is proud to work with organizations like Northeastern Illinois University who are committed to helping older adults successfully run their own business. Our Work for Yourself@50+ program is designed to enable older adults to pursue self-employment by connecting them with trustworthy resources in their own communities.”

Three new entrepreneur business planning cohorts are set to begin after Labor Day. Two courses will begin at the Carruthers Center, 700 E. Oakwood Blvd. in Chicago, on Sept. 7 and on Sept. 10. One course will meet at NEIU’s Main Campus Training Center, 3420 W. Bryn Mawr in Chicago, beginning Sept. 10.

AARP Foundation works to ensure that low-income older adults have nutritious food, affordable housing, a steady income, and strong and sustaining social bonds. We collaborate with individuals and organizations who share our commitment to innovation and our passion for problem-solving. Supported by vigorous legal advocacy, we create and advance effective solutions that help struggling older adults transform their lives. AARP Foundation is the affiliated charity of AARP.