Free Resources for Chicago Startups

By September 7, 2011

I work at the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit that teams up with University of Chicago Law School students to provide free legal assistance, workshops, and advocacy to entrepreneurs.  I talk to entrepreneurs every day about their business needs and their struggle to make their idea a reality as they face legal questions like choice of entity, partnership agreements, and IP issues; business planning questions about financial projections, marketing strategies, and more; all while wondering how to get funding.

Many startups can’t afford to hire pricey for-profit attorneys and consultants, but there are a number of local free or low-cost resources out there for Chicago startups, if you know that they exist, that is.  The following are organizations you should think about contacting if you’re looking for business assistance on a budget.

Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs)
SBDCs can be found at most colleges and a number of nonprofits.  They typically offer free one-on-one counseling and workshops for entrepreneurs, and can also be a valuable referral source if you are looking for a specific type of assistance for your business.  SBDCs can be especially helpful for business planning of both the mental and the written variety.

Funding Resources
It’s no secret that funding is always a major issue for startups, and the current economic climate has only made things more difficult.  The Small Business Jobs Act directed additional funding to the SBA and various micro-lenders around the country.  If you’re looking for a small loan to get started, and are having trouble qualifying for conventional loans, organizations like the Jewish Vocational Center, ACCION, and the WBDC offer micro-loans that often come with business support like counseling and mentoring.

Legal Resources
Several law schools in Chicago have legal clinics that offer pro bono assistance to entrepreneurs.  At these teaching clinics, law students serve under the supervision of licensed attorneys, so you get law firm level advice at a bargain rate.  The University of Chicago Law School has the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship, Loyola has the Business Law Center, and Northwestern has the Small Business Opportunity Center.

Lastly, it can be helpful to talk with your Alderman and local chamber of commerce, especially if there is a local component to your business.  These groups have an interest in supporting neighborhood development and can help connect you with resources.  Plus, in a city like Chicago where it’s all about who you know, having the blessing of local leaders can make your life easier–sad, but true!

Below is a list of the above mentioned organizations, plus several more, with their contact information and a brief description of the services they offer.

I’ve categorized the types of services offered to help guide you.

  • [G] = general assistance
  • [F] = financial assistance
  • [B] = business plan assistance
  • [L] = legal assistance

This certainly isn’t every resource out there, but it should be enough to get you started.

ACCION Chicago [F]
1436 West Randolph Street, Suite 300
Chicago, IL 60607
[email protected]

ACCION is an alternative lending organization that provides credit and workshops for small business owners who lack access to traditional sources of financing.

Business Law Center Clinic (BLC) [L]
Loyola University Chicago School of Law
1 East Pearson Street
Chicago, Il 60611

The BLC at Loyola University Chicago School of Law is a transactional law clinic that represents entrepreneurs and small business owners, as well as individuals who are looking to start a nonprofit.

Chicago Community Ventures [G, F]
105 West Adams Street
Chicago, IL 60603
(312) 960-0320

Chicago Community Ventures offers the Financial Empowerment Training Program (FETP) which is designed to help small business owners address these questions about sales, pricing, and financing.  This program is designed to give small business owners a better understanding of their finances and financial position.

Chicago Urban League [G, B]
4510 South Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60653

The Chicago Urban League’s Entrepreneurship Center offers low-cost workshops on everything from marketing, to financial management to legal issues.

Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center (CEC) [G, F]
200 East Randolph Street, Suite 2200
Chicago, IL 60601
(P) (312) 494-6777
[email protected]

The CEC works with early-stage companies, providing business advisory services, helping connect companies with resources and mentors, and hosting events.

Coleman Entrepreneurship Center [G]
DePaul School of Business
1 East Jackson, Suite 8100
Chicago IL 60604
[email protected]

The Coleman Entrepreneurship Center delivers outreach programs both on campus and in the community.  They provide peer-to-peer educational programs designed for business owners.

Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection (BACP) [G]
City of Chicago
121 North LaSalle Street
Chicago, IL 60602

BACP offers free workshops, expos, and business counseling.  Make an appointment to visit their Solution Station at City Hall to speak with experts on business counseling (on Tuesdays), legal assistance (on Wednesdays), and financial assistance (on Thursdays).

Hull House Small Business Development Center [G, B]
Two locations in Chicago.

South Side Parkway Community House
500 East 67th Street
Chicago, IL 60637

North Side Uptown Center Hull House
4520 North Beacon
Chicago, IL 60640

The Hull House SBDC offers a variety of free workshops for entrepreneurs, as well as the Entrepreneurship Training Program (ETP), which is a 10-week course that assists prospective or current business owners in writing or updating a business plan.  The next round of the ETP will start around the end of September.

Hyde Park Angels (HPA) [G, F]
Michael P. Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship
University of Chicago Booth School of Business
5807 South Woodlawn Ave
Chicago, IL 60637
[email protected]

Hyde Park Angels is an organization that brings together former executives, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists to provide a forum for members to invest in seed and early stage businesses, primarily located in the Midwest.  They also provide advice and coaching to companies.

Illinois Small Business Development Center at UIC (IL SBDC at UIC) [G]
Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies
College of Business Administration (MC 090)
815 W. Van Buren, Suite 400
Chicago, Illinois 60607

The IL SBDC at UIC offers workshops and individual counseling to facilitate business development and create jobs. They show entrepreneurs how to identify resources, overcome barriers, ask the right questions and meet people who can help change and further their business.

Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship (IJ Clinic) [L]
University of Chicago Law School
6020 South University Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637
[email protected]

The IJ Clinic (as I mentioned above) works with University of Chicago Law School students to provide free legal assistance, workshops, and legislative advocacy for lower-income entrepreneurs in Chicago.  If you’re looking for a schedule of different workshops and networking events going on around Chicago for entrepreneurs, you can find the IJ Clinic’s calendar of events here.

Jewish Vocational Services/Duman Microenterprise Center [G, F]
216 West Jackson Boulevard, Suite 700
Chicago, IL 60606

The Duman Microenterprise Center at JVS offers training, mentoring, counseling, and access to capital for entrepreneurs.

The Law Project [L]
100 North LaSalle Street, Suite 600
Chicago, IL 60602

The Law Project provides free, expert legal assistance to support community development efforts led by entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations that generally do not have the resources to pay for legal services.

Lawyers for the Creative Arts [L]
213 West Institute Place, Suite 403
Chicago, Illinois 60610

Lawyers for the Creative Arts offers pro bono legal services and workshops for arts businesses.

Northwestern University Law School of Law [L]
Small Business Opportunity Center (SBOC)
357 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
[email protected]

The SBOC is a nonprofit, student-based clinical program at the Bluhm Legal Clinic.  The SBOC provides affordable legal services to entrepreneurs and nonprofit organizations focusing on job creation and economic development in the Chicago area.

Office of the City Treasurer [G, F]
City of Chicago
121 North LaSalle Street
City Hall, Room 106
Chicago, Illinois 60602
Office Phone 312.744.3356
[email protected]

The City Treasurer’s Office offers resources for small business financing, including loans, microloans, and grants.  They also host an annual Small Business Expo, and business plan competitions.

500 West Madison
Chicago, IL 60661

SCORE educates entrepreneurs to help their businesses start, grow, and succeed.  Their network of volunteers around the country offer small business entrepreneurs confidential business counseling services free of charge.  They also provide affordable workshops with resources, templates and tools to assist entrepreneurs in developing tools and plans that will help them succeed.

Technology/Intellectual Property Clinic (TIP Clinic) [L]
DePaul College of Law
25 East Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois 60604

The TIP Clinic provides transactional services for patent, trademark, and copyright law to entrepreneurs who could not afford to pay private counsel for such assistance.

Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) [G, B, F]
8 South Michigan Avenue, Suite 400
Chicago, IL 60603

The WBDC offers workshops, seminars, networking, business coaching, and financial assistance to entrepreneurs.