In Tough Economic Times Entrepreneurship Provides Important Options

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 4, 2008

Chicago—While newspapers, websites and broadcasts are filled with disheartening statistics about layoffs, corporate downsizing and the ripple effects down Main Street from Wall Street’s collapse, there is another story about hardworking individuals that is not getting as much media attention:  entrepreneurs who are starting their own businesses, providing not only jobs for themselves, but work for others as well.  These entrepreneurs provide hope and economic growth even when the drumbeat of dour economic news is the usual story of the day.

At the Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, law students supervised by attorneys are helping low- to moderate-income entrepreneurs navigate the complexities of the legal system to successfully launch their businesses in underserved communities across Chicago.  The IJ Clinic is a model for creating and growing small businesses where they are most-needed:  in America’s inner-city.  And, as the economy continues to slow, the IJ Clinic is actively looking to represent entrepreneurs launching businesses despite the current economic downturn and that businesses can start up with limited capital—especially new ones that are not dependent on bank financing.

The IJ Clinic’s newest client, Rosetta Hill, exemplifies this type of bootstrap entrepreneur.  Hill worked for many years at a cemetery helping bereaved families select headstones and monuments for their loved ones’ graves.  Recently, the cemetery where she was employed was acquired by a large corporate cemetery owner, and her wages and benefits were slashed at the same time as prices on headstones and monuments were raised.  With the expertise and people skills she developed over the years, Hill saw an opening and has launched a small business selling headstones and monuments to members of her church who want personalized service as well as competitive prices when making this important consumer decision.

Some other entrepreneurs represented by the IJ Clinic met through their day jobs in the advertising world and then pooled their savings and a family recipe to start Jersey Mary, which sells a popular barbequing and baking sauce.  Even without outside funding, the sauce caught the attention of buyers at independent local groceries and then Whole Foods.  Recipe ideas on the company’s website and the entrepreneurs’ personal demonstrations at local grocery stores have earned many fans, who depend on Jersey Mary more and more as they cook family meals at home rather than dine out.  The business is bucking the financial downturn and is poised to expand with new products and wider distribution that should provide extra security to its founders when they retire.

For entrepreneurs already in business, the changing economy presents an opportunity to examine business practices afresh and to compete more effectively for the fewer remaining dollars in shoppers’ pockets.  With help from the IJ Clinic, several longtime clients have renegotiated with landlords and suppliers for more favorable payment schedules or lower prices.  Other clients are taking advantage of their small size to become more flexible and responsive to customers’ changing needs.  The alertness of entrepreneurs like IJ’s clients can pay especially high dividends during times where preferences—driven by belt-tightening as well as always-changing trends—are shifting quickly.

The IJ Clinic, located at the University of Chicago Law School, has helped hundreds of low- and moderate-income entrepreneurs across Chicago who need legal assistance, but who cannot afford it.  For more information on the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School, call (773) 834-3129.