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New Start Up Builds Tomorrow's Black Leaders By Backing Their Businesses

PILSEN — A new organization plans to build black businesses across the city by starting at the source — by backing the ideas of Chicago's black youth.

With a little funding and a lot of faith, 28-year-old Britney Robbins has launched The Gray Matter Experience, a non-profit that aims to get more African-American teens interested in business while changing the landscape of blighted neighborhoods across Chicago.

For nine weeks, Gray Matter's pilot class of 20 students is getting a crash-course in business from some of the city's most successful black professionals and business owners. Meeting at Blue 1647, a co-working space in Pilsen, the bi-weekly weekend workshops tackle the ins-and-outs of entrepreneurship, including market research, finance, marketing and how to build a commercial website.

Coached by volunteer mentors and working in groups, the teens will pitch their business ideas "Shark Tank"-style to entrepreneurs on the city's South and West sides. Come fall, each student group will receive about $5,000 from Gray Matter to launch their business in the real world.

"Even if they're making $50 or $100 bucks a week, I want them to think, 'I can do this,'" Robbins said.

African-American students apply to participate and are interviewed and selected based on their commitment and interest, said Robbins, who aims to host three classes of students a year.

Students in Gray Matter's diverse first class are from all walks of life and 15 different neighborhoods, including Roseland, Kenwood, Humboldt Park, Lincoln Park, Austin, Auburn Gresham and Beverly.

"There's no G.P.A. requirement, but they have to want this," Robbins said.

Robbins, who lives in Pilsen, decided to launch Gray Matter after working at Future Founders Foundation, a non-profit that partners with schools to teach entrepreneurial skills hundreds of teens each year. Under the program, the teens built out business plans and learned a lot, but Robbins saw a need for more black role models.

"We had all of these wonderful people that would come in and work with the students, but most of the time they didn't look like the students," said Robbins, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate. "As far as thinking they could do those same things, it wasn't necessarily correlating."

Leaving the non-profit she loved was a risk, but one she believed in. Robbins left Future Founders in May and by July, had secured a private grant to pay for the program and donated computers for the students to use.

"There were just a lot of things that confirmed that I was supposed to be doing this," said Robbins, a native of Downstate Quincy.

"There were just a lot of things that confirmed that I was supposed to be doing this," said Robbins, a native of Downstate Quincy.

In the next few months, Gray Matter students will be learning from entrepreneurs and business owners, including Kimberly Lewis, co-founder of natural hair care company CurlMix; Thomas K.R Stovall, founder of micro-survey company Candid Cup and ImBlackInTech creator; Amir Abed, examiner at the Federal Reserve Bank; and Tchicaya Robertson, manager at Accenture; among others.

Lewis, who owns a manufacturing plant in Hyde Park, said she started her first business in high school, but when she was accepted to U of I's College of Business, often the only black person in her classes, she realized how much she had to learn.

"Even if [the teens] can just get the basic understanding, they will be so much more confident when they do start businesses. And that matters," Lewis said.

Black youth are often "pigeon-holed" into thinking the path to success "has to be in entertainment, sports, or becoming a doctor or lawyer," Robbins said.

"This is what we're shown in the media, on TV, everywhere you look," she said. "My goal is to show them that there are other industries that exist and that there are people that look like you doing those things."

Dasija Cook, entering her senior year at Westinghouse College Prep, is working to develop an organic lip care company for women of color, with plans to market the line via a mobile app.

"Especially in business, we see a lot of successful white people, but to see black business owners doing this, Cook said. "[This] program makes us think that we can do it ourselves."

Michael Reed, a Kenwood Academy senior, launched his own lawn care business last summer, but he has bigger dreams, he said.

"[Gray Matter] is giving me the opportunity to put my thoughts into action," he said. "I can take what I learn and run with it."

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