Lisa Marsh named her gluten free snack company MsPsGFree in honor of her mother, who taught her six children they could do anything they could put their minds to. Yet Marsh knew she had a lot to learn when she started her business two years before retiring from the Federal Bureau of Prisons with a personal passion for making allergen free foods, but without experience running a food-based business.
Marsh began working with Anita Hagan at the Chicago Minority Supplier Development Council (CMSDC), which supports minority-owned businesses to build sustainable and profitable relationships with major buying organizations. CMSDC was one of several organizations supported with a 2022 grant from We Rise Together and The Fund for Equitable Business Growth to Cook County Small Business Source. Through this initiative, including a network of 50-plus community partners who conduct small business advising, marketing and outreach, and grant application support, Cook County has assisted more than 13,000 small businesses since 2020.
Hagan’s advising includes helping business owners secure grants and loans, achieve business certifications, and do strategic business planning. Today, Marsh’s suburban Cook County-based company has five employees, her gluten free granola is in Mariano’s and Whole Foods stores, she won a Bey Foundation grant from Beyonce’ Knowles’ foundation, and she’s seeking to become a government contractor.
“I came into with this with no retail knowledge whatsoever. I like to say I went from corrections to confections,” said Marsh. “CMSDC has taken me under their wings and helped us to scale, they continue to support and work with us so that we can continue to learn and grow so that we become that go-to brand for all things delicious, nutritious and healthy.”
The Source started in 2020 to deliver rapid response and support to small business owners in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, it has grown tremendously and served five times more small businesses in FY22 compared with FY21, thanks in part to We Rise Together’s and Fund for Equitable Business Growth’s support to increase the capacity of business-serving organizations such as CMSDC. This year, The Source will deploy $40 million in grants to small businesses.
Willie Williams was a teacher before he founded his consulting business, Accepted Admissions, in 2018, to help students at high risk schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides prepare for and apply to colleges and universities. Williams is based in Chicago and partners with schools on efforts such as a chess and mentoring program, one-on-one support for college applications, and an initiative with University of Illinois at Chicago to demonstrate dentistry school to high school students. Williams’ goals include hiring staff to serve more schools and hiring more mentors to expand his out-of-school one-on-one mentoring program. Currently he is the only full-time employee, but through a connection from CMSDC, he participated in a program that helped him design a hiring plan.
“As a new business owner that transitioned from teaching, business is kind of scary. All my degrees are in education, so this is something new that I’m learning,” said Williams, who will receive his doctorate in the coming year. “The staff at CMSDC has been very warm and caring, and a steady hand when I’ve thought the ship was about to sink. They’ve connected me to resources to help solve my problems, plus get ahead of areas I hadn’t thought of yet, such as HR. There have been times my hand has hurt from writing down all the information Anita has provided on a phone call.”
We Rise Together will continue to make grants in 2024 to support more business serving organizations like CMSDC. Consider a gift to We Rise Together today to help entrepreneurs like Marsh and Williams build successful, thriving businesses in Chicago and Cook County.