ENGLEWOOD — It’s an unlikely spot for a transformation: a nondescript two-story building at the edge of a quiet Englewood street flanked by an overgrown lot that one would walk past without a second glance.
But if all goes according to plan, the building at 63rd and May streets is where the change will happen — where an unlikely group of entrepreneurs will shape the future of a neighborhood outsiders love to write off.
E.G. Woode — a carefully chosen name for the collective of architects, designers, entrepreneurs and journeymen participating in this grand undertaking — was a project borne from frustration, according to Deon Lucas, an architect and homegrown Chicagoan who grew up on the West Side.
“It was me, as an architect trying to help other developers in the community, and seeing entrepreneurs struggle,” Lucas said. “Developers who had commercial space and space to lease, entrepreneurs who needed space.”
Enter the Thrive Zone, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s three-year pilot program that aims to give underserved communities an economic shot in the arm by providing financial assistance to entrepreneurs and businesses. Lucas gathered up five other neighborhood entrepreneurs and presented his idea to create essentially an incubator for low-profit startups, offering to advocate on the group’s behalf.
“No one had ever done anything like this before,” Lucas said. “I thought only two or three of us would be accepted, so when they called and told us they wanted all of us, I was shocked, because not all of the businesses fit the model they were looking for. I’m a design firm, and they were looking for retail, sales … we had a barbershop, consignment store, restaurant and an accelerator kitchen.”
But they won, along with a few other Englewood business owners, including one woman so impressed with Lucas’s 15-minute spiel that she gave her grant award to the group.
Essentially, E.G. Woode is considered a real estate partner, working with the minority-owned businesses within the collective to develop their storefronts — and using the income generated from leasing and sales to reinvest in minority businesses across the country.
“We purposefully exist to reduce the risk, liability and scarcity of resources for minority owned businesses in underserved communities,” the collective’s website says.
Why E.G. Woode?
“We needed a name that was classic, that could be a man or a woman’s name,” Lucas said. “So I pitched it to the group. They liked it.”
Landing the Thrive Zone grant was a sign of how far the group had come. Folks hadn’t exactly rolled out the welcome mat when Lucas first moved to Englewood.
“They were skeptical when I first started coming around,” recalled Lucas. “I couldn’t blame them. People had come and gone before. But I’m not a ‘boundaries’ kinda guy, I’m a ‘relationships’ kinda guy.”
A family isn’t rooted in geography as much as it is in trust and over time, Lucas cultivated that trust, becoming the go-to guy for quick errands or an extra set of hands. He got a sense of who they were and what they needed, and they, in return, got to know him.
“When we bring on people, we’re very careful about who we select, but they become part of the group,” Lucas said.
Getting the group together was probably the easiest part of the process. The rest of it, not so much.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it’s been exhausting,” Lucas said. “But it’s not anything I don’t think people can go through themselves.”
The key, he says, is to meet new and motivating people who will give you the opportunity, and persistence.
“Patience is one thing, persistence is another,” he said. “You can sit and wait all day but if you aren’t out meeting new people and telling your story and getting an understanding of what they want and need in return, nothing is going to happen.”
It was that patience and persistence that drew Meghan Harte, executive director of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to E.G. Woode. She became one of their biggest champions.
“Deon had a very detailed blueprint of what he wanted to do,” Harte said. She met Lucas and the group through LISC’s Quality of Life program, which invests in new economic opportunities in low-income neighborhoods.
“People talk about being inclusive but that usually means just giving a couple of people a job and hope no one else bothers you, but here was a plan that was about wealth building, and it wasn’t just transactional,” Harte said. “At every level, there’s an opportunity. It’s a real estate acquisition and a holding company for a community that keeps prices affordable.”
Still, revealed Harte, LISC struggled with this very new idea — at least how to pitch it in order to secure the funds needed to support such a project.
“It pushed [us] on a national level to be better, to recognize holes in our lending,” Harte said. “We had to look at risk in a different way, so we went out and got other stuff.”
“Other stuff” was money from Benefit Chicago, an angel investment group started by Chicago Community Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Calvert Impact Capital; and a grant from JP Morgan Chase. That allowed LISC to figure out how to adjust their lending for Deon and the others who will undoubtedly follow in E.G. Woode’s footsteps.
When people have compromised in the past, it usually yields something good, but not great, said Harte.
“The system has tried to make him compromise, but he hasn’t,” she said.
The first project should be completed by May or June, Lucas said. “Hopefully the next ones flow after that.”
When the dust finally settles, the parcel of land near the corner of 63rd and May streets will be home to Beehyyve, a new design firm that will serve as a co-working space for architects, engineers, and designers; Ellie’s Urban Grill, a fast-casual, sports-themed restaurant and catering service; Englewood Kitchen, a new shared commercial kitchen and food incubator space; Marie Wesley, a consignment shop staffed by formerly incarcerated individuals; and Powell’s Barbershop, a neighborhood barber shop and barber training school.
All due to persistence.
“It’s exciting to watch things coming together,” Lucas said. “These are the things that keep me moving.”
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