School of Business Wins NICI Grant to Launch More Entrepreneurial Dreams


LaTanya Cross remembers days not long ago when her husband, Ronnie, worked on cars in their garage at home. Ronnie expressed interest in starting a legitimate business. While volunteering for an expo held by nonprofit Think Big!, they were connected to its co-founder Dr. Sheila Hill.

“Once they started the School of Business, we jumped on it,” she said.

Think Big!, founded in 2018, helps disadvantaged entrepreneurs overcome barriers to establishing and growing their own businesses. The School of Business is a four-week accelerated program that teaches aspiring entrepreneurs and even established businesses how to successfully set up a business. Participants meet for three hours on Saturdays. Each is assigned a business coach and four facilitators walk them through the curriculum.

Think Big! was awarded a $100,000 Impact Grant from NICI to support increased demand for services, as well as educational and technical support. In January, it will be able to operate two cohorts of students instead of one, Dr. Hill said. Each cohort consists of about 35 participants. They also will be adding monthly workshops featuring guest speakers to share expertise on how to scale up a business, and quarterly networking events for up to 100 entrepreneurs.

“The program attracts a mixture of students, from a salon or barber to a home day care operator and a caterer,” Hill said. “Some have been in business for several years but lack legal structure. Others operate storefronts without applying for their city and state licenses. We help them go from a side hustle to a legitimate business.”

LaTanya Cross attended business school in college, but the School of Business gave her and her husband the tools they needed to make their dreams a reality.

“Think Big! gives you that real experience. It was more personable to go through the Think Big! School of Business. I think I learned more from them than going to college.”

After the Crosses completed the program, Duntai Matthews, Think Big! co-founder, told them about a building for rent that used to be an auto mechanic shop. “We reached out and we did get that building and everything has fallen into place since we’ve been with Think Big!” she said.

The couple opened the #TheCrossover Motorsports at 3329 Auburn Street in Rockford on April 1. The business was named for the hashtag they used on social media for their wedding. On November 5, they were invited to address the newest graduates at their ceremony. LaTanya had this advice: “Don’t give up. Stick to it. If you know this is your passion and this is really what you want to do, just push forward. It will be worth it.’”

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Nonprofit trains youth in community gardening to address grocery shortages


Melvin Leach, a case worker for the Harvey Brooks Foundation of Joliet, is aware of the lack of grocery stores in the city’s predominately African American neighborhoods. But living in a food desert hits harder some days than others, he said. Like the time he had to go to four grocery stores to buy two cans of cranberry sauce. And it wasn’t even Thanksgiving. He finally found what he was looking for at a mom-and-pop store, not a major grocery chain.

“I got the last two cans,” Leach said. “That is a shame.”

It is, however, an example of the challenges African American residents on the east side have finding food, and specifically items that are aligned with their culture and preferences, Leach added. 

“We used to have several groceries in Joliet. In the past 20 years, all the grocery stores that served the community shut down and moved to the west side. Anyone from Lockport or east Joliet, you’re going to drive 30 minutes to get to a Walmart or a Jewel-Osco.”

The Harvey Brooks Foundation, founded in 1998 by Bishop Robert Sanders and members of the All Nations Church of God in Christ, operates a food pantry and several community gardens. A $100,000 Impact Grant Award from Northern Illinois Community Initiatives (NICI) will enable the foundation to develop a long-term funding plan to meet demand for more services, such as its “We Will Grow” Community Garden Initiative and after school programs serving up to 50 students in k-12. 

NICI Executive Director Tovah McCord, in her search for potential grantees, came upon a 2019 article about the community garden written by the foundation’s then-outreach coordinator Tempie Bates. McCord paid the foundation a visit and provided staffers with the structure to build an application to request grant funding. 

“Her assignment to us was find other corporations like Nicor Gas who have an extended arm to give money toward youth programming, nutrition, health . . . and have them join their money with what NICI is giving so we can grow our community garden to the next stage – a farmer’s market, or grocery store – that involves the youth and provides nutrition to solve food desert issues in this area,” said Leach.

McCord and NICI staffer Kendall Sprinkle went to Joliet in May to help with planting. The community gardens have produced great yields, Leach said. Each week, the foundation hands out fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, collard greens, jalapenos, bell peppers, squash, and okra. 

“The kids built a salad for the garden. Now, as we pick up our fall offerings, we will incorporate cooking and culinary. Our ultimate goal is to show our young people how to plant and grow their food and get it from the garden to their plate.”

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A Note from the Executive Director: Year One in Review


In some ways, it seems like a long time has passed since NICI launched one year ago. Illinois was moving back into restrictions again due to the COVID-19 Delta variant, and we quickly changed our launch celebration event into a virtual one. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since then. In other ways, I can’t believe how quickly time went by. This was especially true as we were completing our first grant cycle, which was deeply satisfying. It was the culmination of our months-long strategic planning process and gave us a bold vision for our path forward.  I feel strongly about the nonprofits we have partnered with and will continue to support over the coming year.

One thing I am proud of is the diversity of challenges our grantees are addressing; it reflects the broad and complex nature of economic development. Our goal is to have a comprehensive approach that impacts multiple components of the economic development ecosystem. With grant investments in the areas of public transit, entrepreneurship, and food security, I think we are off to a great start!

Today, I am very pleased to present our 2022 Impact Grant awardees.

While I was doing research on barriers to employment for marginalized groups, I was struck by how large of a role access to public transit played. Seeing this in the current context of people who are looking for good job opportunities and employers desperate for workers, transportation seems like an especially unfortunate obstacle. The South Cook Mobility Study found that south suburban residents have the longest average round trip work commute in the county, 24 miles.

Given the number of people who could be impacted by finding solutions to this problem, I thought this area may be a good fit for our Impact Grant program. I began doing some research, and saw that the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation (CSEDC) had been thinking about this for some time. I spoke with the Executive Director, Reggie Greenwood, and was delighted to hear that his organization had recently started an initiative called the Southland Mobility Collaborative (SMC). The purpose of the SMC is to convene public, private and civic sector stakeholders to help identify and develop solutions for an array of interconnected mobility and economic development challenges for southern Cook County. Our grant funding will help support this effort, as well as the launch of a pilot study on a micro transit system.

Economic opportunity is important for any community, but before that is possible the most basic needs must be taken care of first. For under resourced neighborhoods, meeting those needs cannot be taken for granted, something that the Harvey Brooks Foundation (HBF) knows well. Founded in 1988, HBF has been providing services, programs, and healthy food to residents on the southeast side of Joliet for almost 25 years. Thanks to their dedicated and passionate staff, HBF’s reach goes far beyond their size. The southeast side of Joliet has historically been under served, and HBF has become a crucial source of support for residents in that area.

In addition to character building afterschool programs, HBF operates a robust community garden full of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Each week, they provide fresh, organic produce to residents via their food pantry. In a neighborhood that has been designated as a “food desert”- where 33% of residents live more than one mile from a grocery store- the garden has become an important part of the health of the community. Residents in the neighborhood have come to rely on their garden as a source of healthy, organic produce and HBF’s pantry serves up to 100 individuals a week. I had a chance to help plant broccoli and kale among other things and was amazed at the bountiful harvest the garden produced when I came back two months later. Our grant will support capacity building for the programs, garden and add a new role focused on fundraising to their staff to set HBF up for long-term success.

While there has been an increase in the number of minority- and women-owned businesses, and federal, state and local programs to support them since the beginning of the pandemic, these entrepreneurs continue to lag behind when it comes to investment funding. In addition to a lack of resources, diverse businesses are also less likely to have access to other resources critical for success such as a social network that can provide “angel investors,” mentoring, technical assistance and business plan development. This has been the case historically and has been a barrier to the growth of these businesses. In Rockford, a nonprofit organization called Think Big is addressing this issue head on.

Think Big was founded in 2018 by Sheila Hill and Duntai Mathews, two highly accomplished African American entrepreneurs. They came back to Rockford specifically to share the knowledge and tools that made them successful with other minority and women business owners. For the past three years, that knowledge has been provided through Think Big’s School of Business, which NICI’s grant funding is helping to support and scale. I had the pleasure of meeting with Sheila and Duntai this spring and was impressed by their dedication to Rockford and the potential of the people, city and the region. Not only do they want to help other diverse entrepreneurs be successful, they also want to change the way funders and financial institutions view investing in these businesses. Their ultimate goal is to change the mindset of diverse businesses being seen as “risky.” Think Big has accomplished a lot in its four years of existence and now is a particularly exciting time for the organization as they secured a building for their new headquarters earlier this year. We are thrilled to support the growth of their capacity and impact throughout the Rockford region.

All of our grantees bring much to the table and we appreciate the opportunity to sit with them as partners in their respective communities. I look forward to what we will accomplish together.

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New Mobility Collaborative Sets Motion for More Growth in Illinois


A common focus shared by officials and local leaders throughout Illinois is cultivating its communities and infrastructure. The Mobility Collaborative is a combination of the two. Chicago Mobility Collaborative (CMC), also referred to as Southland Mobility Collaborative (SMC) and Mobility Data Collaborative (MDC), is a public forum that assembles four times a year to ensure an appropriate, accessible network of transportation for all. Whether you get from point A to point B by walking, riding, biking, or any other means, the Mobility Collaborative’s goal is to make sure Chicago’s Southland transportation system is both safe and accessible for everyone.

SMC is a project of Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation (CSEDC). And during the quarterly forums, community advocates, transportation liaisons, and other stakeholders in Chicago meet to discuss how to make the transportation network better. CDOT’s Strategic Plan for Transportation guides the Mobility Collaborative.

The mission of CSEDC is to identify, organize and mobilize public and private resources that will result in the creation and expansion of economic growth and sustainable careers in the region. Although there has been tremendous growth, the lack of access to public transportation has contributed to low-income residents not participating in newer job opportunities.

With grant funding of $100,000 from Northern Illinois Community Initiatives (NICI) Impact Grant program, CSEDC’s SMC will create micro-transit options for residents. It will focus on over 50 municipalities in Will and Cook Counties, also known as Chicago’s Southland region.

When asked about the first impressions of CSEDC, NICI Executive Director Tovah McCord shared that this program is truly a hub for the area, especially in the area of collaborative works and opportunities. She touted the commitment and passion of Reggie Greenwood, CSEDC Executive Director, for providing a distinctive synergy to make a difference. McCord describes the organization as a “daring collaborative passionate convener” who is dedicated to getting things done and making a difference.

CSEDC’s mission is to provide resources that help build and grow companies in Southland, thereby building the economy and providing sustainable careers. The powers that be aren’t just focused on developing the economy. They also have you in mind. With CSEDC’s Mobility Collaborative project, healthier fuel emissions, and electric options, you can be part of that thriving economy knowing you’re driving, walking, riding, or cycling in an accessible, healthy, and safe environment for all.

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Northern Illinois Community Initiatives Awards Impact Grants Totaling $300,000


Funding will support micro-transit strategy, educational enrichment and diverse entrepreneurs

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Nicor Gas announces Northern Illinois Community Initiatives


Foundation will collaborate with local partners to invest in economic development initiatives in under-resourced neighborhoods


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