As we near the end of Black History Month, it’s a good time to reflect on the state of Black-owned businesses across Chicagoland. 

So we spoke with Adrienne McFarland, the Program Director of the Illinois Small Business Development Center at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, to get her thoughts on the current — and future — condition of Black-owned businesses in Chicago. 

In our conversation, Adrienne delved into the evolving state of Black entrepreneurship, the importance of building a knowledgeable support network, and why she’s optimistic about the future. 

Can you provide an overview of the current landscape of Black-owned businesses in Chicago?  

The state of Black-owned businesses in Chicago is an uphill battle, but there are definitely some wins out there. Access to capital is critical, but access to capital also requires knowledge about how to receive capital to start or grow your business. And then there’s also just education, overall education, on how to start your business. That’s where I come into play at the Small Business Development Center, and why we’re considered the first stop where business owners or aspiring entrepreneurs should go in order to receive assistance to start a business.  

What does the data tell us about the state of Black-owned businesses in Chicago?  

A few years ago, a study found that Black-owned businesses make up approximately 11% of all businesses in Illinois, but they comprise only 2% of the state’s 243,465 employer business. In other words, these businesses are not growing. And so if your business is not growing, that means there’s some type of barrier there, there are roadblocks.  

What type of roadblocks do you see? 

Historically, Black entrepreneurs just don’t come from a world where there’s a support system that helps you sustain your business, tells you what you’re going to need before you even get started, and things like that. Let’s say you’re 20 years old, and you’ve never met someone with a successful business. How do you know what to do? How do you know how to sustain it? Who do you talk to if you can’t ask an uncle, a mom, or a dad for investment into your business? That’s why the main issue for starting a business is access to capital period, point blank — if you don’t have the money to do it, you’re not going to be able to do it.  

What advice would you give to Black entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?  

I would say you should start by building a team of people who will support you and give you advice — people you trust who are knowledgeable. Look for a business resource person, someone at a chamber of commerce or SBDC. And then become as knowledgeable as possible about everything you possibly can. Find out what’s out there that can help you get it off the ground and sustain it. That means every loan that’s out there, every grant that’s out there, every piece of technology to make the job easier.  

What do you see when you look at the future of Black-owned businesses in Chicago?  

I see growth and opportunity in Black-owned businesses, and I’m going to continue to be optimistic about it because there are organizations like our SBDC that are doing the work to support these businesses. But the state of Illinois is going to have to continue to invest in small businesses, too. I’m hopeful for that because I like our governor — I think he understands business. And I’m hoping that the mayor understands business and continues to invest in the South and West sides of Chicago, or just small business in general. And I think especially when it comes to like the next generation, I think they’re going to be more educated. And so we’re going to move past some of the barriers that we’ve had.  

*This has been edited from a transcript for length and clarity. 

Adrienne McFarland

Center Director, Illinois Small Business Development Center at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce