Britney Robbins aims to help communities with the lure of enterprise — teaching students to start businesses for underserved areas.
Robbins founded the Gray Matter Experience, a new entrepreneurial program for Chicago teenagers that focuses on black business development and gives them money to start enterprises in black communities.
The nonprofit organization, which started its first program in July, works with high school students and exposes them to some of Chicago's top black entrepreneurs and professionals.
Students meet every other Saturday through November at Blue1647, where they learn about entrepreneurial concepts including idea generation, marketing, legal structures and financials. Panel discussions, speakers and workshops include Jason Johnson,founder of the Konveau app, and Thomas K.R. Stovall, creator of the BlackInTech speaker series.
"The goal is to put them in front of people they deem as cool who are already successful entrepreneurs," Robbins said.
A field trip precedes each meeting, and art and music are incorporated throughout. Students will learn to DJ, tour a black-owned film studio, and design shoes with a local designer.
"I'm very, very focused on making this an experience that high school students want to be a part of. I'm trying to make sure that if I was a high school student, this was a program I'd want to be involved in," said Robbins, 28. "It's a way for them to see other forms of entrepreneurship and industry that exist."
She's unapologetic about the program's black emphasis. The students might be better able to relate to black mentors and presenters, she said.
"They'll take information from anywhere, but when you put someone in front of them who is telling them they could do these things, who looks like them, the engagement is totally different," she said. "Now the kids actually say, 'If they can actually do that, I can do that.'"
Students are charged with creating businesses that will positively impact their communities by addressing challenges such as food deserts, violence and crime. Each group gets a mentor and a share of $30,000 in seed money.
Robbins was previously experience designer at the Future Founders Foundation, which teaches young people about entrepreneurship. Working with high school students there, she wanted to see more participants be able to act on the ideas they developed within the program.
The Gray Matter Experience, which Robbins used her own money to start, works with 15 to 24 students at a time. The first class runs through Nov. 12, when the teens will pitch their companies.
Aaja Corinne Magee, branding strategist at Aaja Corrine The Brand, will talk personal branding with the group in October, after becoming a fast fan of the concept.
"Entrepreneurship and education is really a ticket to the next level. We really need to learn how to serve our own," said Magee, 26. "It's a community effort to say, 'If we don't take care of ourselves, who will?' and working to empower this generation to empower the next generation."
The mentorship aspect was a draw for Michael Reed, a 17-year-old rising senior at Kenwood Academy. He was in Gray Matter's inaugural class of 20 students.
In fact, his group is working on a mentor-mentee matching business.
"It appeals to me because I can build a business that will help the larger community in the future," he said. "You can impact so many people."