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Growing a Successful Business In Chicago’s Bureaucratic Weeds

By Beth Kregor

Many people never imagine themselves as an entrepreneur until they see an unmet need in their community and realize they can fill it. IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship client Damita McCoy is one such person. After watching her mother slip into dementia, she realized how important thoughtful, respectful caregivers are for the elderly and their families. She was determined to fill that need for her fellow Chicagoans and leave a positive legacy behind. She fittingly called her business concept Service in Bloom. But Illinois has made it almost impossible for this small business dream to take root and blossom.

The startup capital required for a caregiver business like Service in Bloom—which offers companionship and non-medical assistance to the elderly in their own homes—is compassion, a strong work ethic and time. In fact, it seems like the perfect business for a poor person to start to create jobs for herself and others. Yet, in Illinois, you need a big budget, a law degree or both.

Since meeting with Damita in October 2012, teams of IJ Clinic students have devoted hundreds of hours to helping her navigate complex and confusing license requirements. The application itself took over a year to prepare and carried a nonrefundable fee of $1,500. When Damita finally sent it in, she called from the post office to celebrate the feat and wish us a Happy New Year 2014.

Then we waited and worked, providing more documents and answering odd questions every few months when we heard from the state. To prepare for the final step—a site visit—we scoured the regulations for every mandate. We prepared a pile of written policies that were specifically required by law. Even more ridiculous, Damita had to rent office space, even though the caregivers will work in customers’ homes. So she lost even more money and time applying for her license instead of building her business.

Eventually, even the effervescent Damita began to question the wait and worry of the application process.

Finally, in December 2014, the big day came. Damita, an IJ Clinic student and I waited nervously in the rented office space. The auditor expressed surprise that Damita felt a need for legal assistance at all. “I should hope that’s not necessary,” she said. Then the audit lasted hours, as the auditor read and questioned every corporate record and policy we had written, asked about all of Damita’s plans and scolded us because we did not have written policies describing every step the business would take.

The auditor spent an hour re-reading a contract that had been negotiated and approved months earlier and asked for meaningless changes. But she begrudgingly gave us the license in the end. Damita danced a jig (as soon as the auditor left), and I tried to recover my composure.

As Damita says at every meeting, “How could someone possibly do this without help from people like the IJ Clinic?” We are thrilled that Service in Bloom is now in bloom, and we cannot wait to pull some weeds out of the licensing process so it does not choke out other entrepreneurs like Damita.

Beth Kregor is the director of the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship.

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