The Arts & Makers Community Business Academy launched at Rebuild Foundation last fall. Credit: courtesy Rebuild Foundation

When Etiti Ayeni moved herself and her company to Chicago last year, she knew she needed something. But what that something should be, she wasn’t sure.

“I felt like I needed some kind of injection into my business,” she says. “I didn’t know if that was going to be capital, if that was going to be mentorship or guidance.”

Ayeni is the founder and creator behind ELUKE, a statement jewelry and accessories company.

She had just relocated to the city from Washington, D.C. and didn’t know anyone but her family. That made the transition difficult. But she learned about an entrepreneurial training program for artists and attended the information session at Rebuild Foundation.

“I’m a south side-based artist so being able to access a space like that, adjacent to where I operate my business and live my life, was very, very impactful,” she says. “And too, just associating with other people that share the same similar goals as me and who encounter some of the similar challenges that creative-based businesses face, it really changed the trajectory of my time spent here.”

Ayeni learned technical skills to apply to her business, but more importantly, she started to build community.

“I’ve definitely made some enduring connections,” she says. “And I would say that that was a really big benefit to my business that I didn’t even know that I needed.”

Ayeni’s class last fall was the first cohort for the Arts & Makers Community Business Academy with Rebuild Foundation and Sunshine Enterprises. And now, the program is ramping up to launch the third cohort (digitally) the second week in September.

Rebuild, which was founded by artist Theaster Gates, focuses on art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation. Equipping artists with the tools they need to thrive is key to this mission.

“I think our viewpoint as an organization—and certainly his viewpoint—is that when artists have the tools to see their vision succeed, communities ultimately are made better,” says Julie Yost, Rebuild’s director of programming. “What we were seeing was that there just seemed to be a gap in a lot of these entrepreneurship programs, that artists were not getting the training that they needed to really scale their practice as you might scale a business.”

Sunshine Enterprises has a similar mission. The organization trains and coaches entrepreneurs, specifically those in Chicago’s underresourced communities.

“They give so much care to their graduates,” Yost says about Sunshine. “And they also were very excited about the idea of gearing something towards the artist and maker community. So it just ended up being a real perfect fit, and we’ve really seen them take this program and run with it and adapt it to artists.”

Laura Lane, Sunshine Enterprises’ managing director of programs, taught that first class of artists—whose businesses ranged in everything from artisan goods and visual art to music and design. In its Community Business Academy and in other programs, the organization focuses on giving entrepreneurs access to three different kinds of capital: social (knowing each other and building community), knowledge (the technical skills that relate to running a business), and financial capital (grants and other opportunities to help its students fund and grow their businesses). That model can help entrepreneurs at any stage.

“We had a really good mix of in-business art entrepreneurs and startups,” Lane says about the first two groups the program has had so far. “And they learn as much from the instructors as they do from each other.”

Getting a handle on money can be a tremendous hurdle for any entrepreneur, but for creatives, there are clear differences. So in addition to helping participants work on their credit to improve their access to different financing options, Sunshine and Rebuild make sure their program participants are aware of what grant opportunities are available, specifically in the art space.

The course also helps participants figure out how to price their art and find their target market. Robin Simmons, director of outreach and innovation at Sunshine, says it’s something many entrepreneurs in the art world struggle with.

“The specific value of this class is we have found in our traditional CBA (Community Business Academy) that the creative entrepreneur, whether it’s performance or visual arts, were undervaluing the service that they were providing to the community,” says Simmons. “And we value art, public art, performance art as a community development tool: It is therapeutic, it’s rehabilitative, and is even an aesthetic that increases the overall experience in our neighborhoods.”

Financial need is also a consideration in getting entrepreneurs into the course itself. The registration fee is income-based, and the organization provides several grants to cover the cost of attendance, including for formerly incarcerated business owners.

The curriculum, which is designed for the adult learner, also takes into account the lives and financial situations of participants.

“It’s an adult participatory methodology that is designed specifically for entrepreneurs that are currently working and managing family and also running a supplemental income business,” Simmons says. “The majority of our entrepreneurs are working a supplemental income business with a goal to be able to replace their income and be full-time entrepreneurs.”

Sunshine Enterprises is holding multiple information sessions about the fall cohort, and similar to its partnership with Rebuild, also plans to create a similar Community Business Academy for artists with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Humboldt Park that will be for Spanish speakers. It plans to bring that same special energy it’s created, because for artists like Etiti Ayeni, that’s what’s special about the experience—it’s something other training programs just can’t copy.

“You can’t duplicate that in other programs: The way that it applies to our needs as artists, and the way that we’re able to collaborate in a space that takes into consideration that we’re small businesses,” Ayeni says. “I think that they caught a stride and I hope more entrepreneurs are drawn to the program.”   v