Chicago mayoral candidates discuss immigrant entrepreneurs

Yixuan Xie
Medill Reports

Four Chicago mayoral candidates offered their strategies on how to support small business owners, particularly among immigrant populations, at a public forum on Wednesday at the Croatian Cultural Center.

The forum was sponsored by more than 10 multicultural organizations representing Indo-American, Muslim, Jewish, Assyrian, Arab American, Asian American communities and others.

Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza pointed out that the biggest challenge for small businesses is access to capital.

Instead of giving matching grants that a lot of small businesses can’t take advantage of, the city must give loans that can kick-start the small business community, Lightfoot said.

“We can go to the banks and other financial vendors and use the phone call from the mayor’s office to really frankly ask and, if necessary, pressure them to lower the barriers so that entrepreneurs can access cash and then the city can do a couple things right away,” she said.

Lightfoot said one thing is to break down contracts for about $2 billion  in goods and services that Chicago procures each year and make more of those contracts accessible to small businesses to create wealth. The other action the city can take is to provide incubators so that small businesses can promote peer-to-peer networking and have mentors who can help develop business plans, Lightfoot said.

Mendoza, on the other hand, put her focus on investing in neighborhoods, especially those most underserved and under-resourced, to help small businesses’ access capital.

Chicago mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza shares her neighborhood development plan in a conversation led by Sufyan Sohel, deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. (Yixuan Xie/Medill)

Neighborhoods with significant immigrant populations would benefit from this approach, Mendoza said. Immigrants are more likely to open up small businesses than non-immigrant U.S. citizens, according to data from the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy group.

“As comptroller, I had the pleasure of working with so many different entrepreneurs and workforce development groups that want to partner with minority businesses, but I don’t want to just see subcontractors sprouting all over the place for minority participation,” Mendoza said. “We want to get to a point where our subcontractors are our next prime contractors and are really building the huge projects that are going to help reshape the city’s future.”

Paul Vallas, former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, said the only investments in many communities are those by sons and daughters of immigrants, so the city has to create conditions for small businesses by providing tax abatements.

“We not only have to cut property tax fees and fines, but we’ve also got to reduce these burdensome business taxes, fees and fines that you pay for inspections,” Vallas said.

Vallas criticized the use of inspection as a revenue generator.

“They get you on 18 different inspection violations and find you over and over again,” Vallas said. “They are doing it not to improve the quality of the business services you’re providing. They are doing it to generate revenue there.”

Gery Chico, chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Chicago Public Schools Board President, said his plan for community reinvestment and economic development calls for helping to bring back business tenants to vacant storefronts along many of commercial streets.

Chicago mayoral candidate Gery Chico talks about community redevelopment and answers questions raised by Dhara Puvar, executive director at the South Asian American Policy & Research Institute. (Yixuan Xie/Medill)

“It’s very doable. We have to have an intense focus and bring the resources of not only the city but private sector capital to bring these storefronts back along our streets,” Chico said. “We will put people into work and make our community safe.”

Photo at top: Chicago mayoral candidates Paul Vallas, Susana Mendoza, Gery Chico and Lori Lightfoot (from left to right) offer strategies for small business incentives in a multicultural forum Wednesday at the Croatian Cultural Center. (Yixuan Xie/Medill)