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Ten Businesses Complete the Chicago Urban League’s 2021-22 nextONE Program

CHICAGO (April 25, 2022) – The 2022 cohort of the Chicago Urban League’s nextONE program closed out their nine-month experience with a final pitch competition and graduation celebration on Saturday, April 9. The cohort, which included 11 entrepreneurs representing 10 Black-owned businesses, was the first to complete the program since it was relaunched last year.

An intensive MBA-level business accelerator program, nextONE is designed to help Black entrepreneurs grow and scale their established businesses. From 2007 to 2010, the program was the flagship of the Chicago Urban League’s entrepreneurship center, with more than 50 business owners completing it before it was halted. The Chicago Urban League relaunched the program in spring 2021 as part of its strategic focus on decreasing the racial wealth gap. The revamped nextONE also emphasized social impact, highlighting ways Black-owned businesses can be successful while also doing good in their communities.

“By many estimates, Black households have just one-tenth the wealth of white households. Business ownership is one path to generational wealth building, but while there are many Black business owners, they tend to have lower revenues, less business management training, and less access to capital than white business owners,” said Chicago Urban League President and CEO Karen Freeman-Wilson. “The nextONE program had a strong track record for helping entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level, so we brought it back as a way to strengthen individual businesses so they can create more jobs and economic activity in our communities.”

Over the course of the program, business owners received several opportunities that had immediate tangible results. For instance, several businesses received thousands of dollars in grants from PepsiCo and Home Depot through partnerships with the Urban League. Some received pro bono advice and technical expertise from executives at Illinois Tool Works, Inc. (ITW) as part of a new initiative called Change Makers. (watch the ITW – Change Makers Video)

“[The ITW Change Makers] were able to help us create a dashboard, and that was able to help us dial into our customer base as well as the most targeted areas by zip code,” said Jimmie Williams, co-owner of Urban Roots, Inc., a landscaping and snow removal company that serves commercial, industrial and residential customers. “We were able to really point which zip codes were bringing in the most dollars and which ones were the most profitable, and that was huge.”

Participants in the 2022 cohort also attended monthly sessions where they learned from a curriculum that included fundamentals on how to manage a business as well as an executive learning lab where they had the opportunity to apply what they learned to their own companies. Each business was assigned to an executive coach, who provided two hours of coaching based on the business need. They also benefitted from insights provided by successful entrepreneurs, such as Ariel Investments’ founder John Rogers and ComfortCakes’ founder Amy Hilliard, who served as guest speakers.

The 2022 cohort participants included:

  • Keeana Barber – WDB Marketing
  • Lenver Felton – Second City Cleaning
  • Virginette Fitzpatrick – Stella Café
  • Christyn Freemon – Project Forward
  • Shaka Mitchell – Anthos Training Clubs
  • Brenda Nelson – Stitch Me Apparel
  • Yvonne Orr – YORR Consulting Inc.
  • Lori Parrett – Cakewalk Chicago
  • Victoria Singleton – Tru Construction
  • Jimmie and Tiffany Williams – Urban Roots Inc.

“The businesses in the cohort could not have been more different from each other, ranging from a pastry café to a landscaping business to a construction company,” said Sharon McDade, who served as director of the program. “The curriculum and coaching were tailored to each business. It was important for us to meet each business owner where they were.”

Along with classroom instruction, guest speakers, and expert advice, all of the cohort participants had opportunities to pitch their businesses to potential clients, and some won new contracts.

During the graduation, which was held at the Hyde Park Bank Building, the nine-month program concluded with a final pitch competition. Each business owner was given four minutes to showcase their business, highlight success stories, and present a business need. Pamela Randle of JPMorgan Chase, Paul Cavalieri of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Steven Shaw of Verizon volunteered their time to judge the competition.

Brenda Nelson, an Englewood Chicago native and president of Stich Me Apparel, won the competition and the $10,000 prize.

“I was excited to represent the small team with Stitch Me Apparel and ultimately take home a $10,000 prize,” said Nelson. “Since proudly starting our business in the Englewood community, we have made it a priority to extend into the full Chicagoland community and beyond. With the information we have learned during the nextONE business accelerator program and now with this prize money, we can definitely extend our business and show other small Black business owners that the possibilities are endless. We are so grateful to the Chicago Urban League and the nextONE program for this opportunity.”

Speakers for the nextONE graduation included Karen Freeman-Wilson – President & CEO of the Chicago Urban League, Dr. Suzet McKinney – Principal, Director of Life Sciences at Sterling Bay and Chair Elect of the Chicago Urban League’s Board of Directors, and Kenneth Escoe – Executive Vice President at Illinois Tool Works and nextONE Advisory Board Member.

Corporate sponsors of the 2022 nextONE cohort include Boeing, Fifth Third Bank, BMO Harris Bank, AT&T, and McGrath Imports. Other program partners include the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Hyatt Corp., ITW, mHUB, and Wintrust.

“Bringing nextONE back would not have been possible without the support of our sponsors, partners and nextONE Advisory Board members who recognize the importance of strengthening Black-owned businesses,” said Freeman-Wilson. “We are incredibly grateful and look forward to continuing this work with future cohorts.”

Information on applying for the 2023 nextONE cohort will be available this summer. Check for updates.

To learn more about upcoming programs and events from the Chicago Urban League, visit

About the Chicago Urban League

Established in 1916, the Chicago Urban League works to achieve equity for Black families and communities through social and economic empowerment. For more information, visit Find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

(l-r) Kenneth Escoe, Executive Vice-President at Illinois Tool Works and nextONE Advisory Board Member; Michael McDonald, Segment Sourcing Director, Direct Categories-Construction at Illinois Tool Works, Inc.; Robert Dutzi, Group President at ITW; Tiffany Williams, Co-Founder at Urban Roots Landscaping;
Jimmie Williams, Co-Founder at
Urban Roots Landscaping
Karen Freeman-Wilson and Brenda Nelson