By Bethany Ao
Raising money for a new business venture is always a challenge, but Emile Cambry Jr. wanted to make that process a little more straightforward for entrepreneurs from underserved Chicago communities. In order to do so, he created BLUEFund Rewards, a new crowdfunding platform that connects small business owners with potential outside funders.
Cambry, the founder and CEO of Chicago-based tech and entrepreneurship incubator Blue1647, is no stranger to bringing business opportunities to disadvantaged communities. Since starting Blue1647 in September 2013, Cambry, a former microeconomics professor at North Park University, has worked to provide business workshops and classes for communities of color, as well as youth and women.
Nine months ago, he teamed up with Tracy G. Powell, the founder and CEO of web design firm BIG Web Inc. and created a Kickstarter-like platform for Chicago entrepreneurs after hearing about their struggles raising capital. When Cambry and Powell launched BLUEFund two weeks ago, they shared this vision with the business community.
“When Blue1647 first got started, access to capital was really difficult for us,” Cambry said. “A lot of people talk about raising money from your friends and family, but most of the time, it’s just not that easy. We didn’t want to just talk to our communities about how to raise capital; we wanted to help them do it.”
Cambry sees helping small businesses raise money as one way to stimulate the economies of underserved communities. As local businesses expand, Cambry believes that more jobs will be created for young people, leading to less violence.
Cambry’s next step for BLUEFund is returning ownership of these local businesses to the communities that nurtured them. The second piece of the platform will allow investors to provide entrepreneurs with funding in exchange for equity.
One of the first companies to start a campaign on BLUEFund was TawiaDesigns, a Chicago-based shoe brand that draws inspiration from African textiles and designs. Founder Emmanuel Tawia said he decided to create the brand after a visit to Ghana, where he saw local artisans like himself trying to carve out a living.
“Since I grew up in a Ghanaian family, I was always exposed to various textiles and designs,” he said. “When I saw these local artisans on my visit, I wondered, ‘What if I could design a shoe, employ these people to create these designs, and help them with their daily lives?’”
Tawia, who had learned how to make shoes during his freshman year in college, released his first collection for TawiaDesigns in 2013. He spent the next three years building a social media presence and getting his shoes into stores, before meeting Cambry at WDB (What’s Da Business) Marketing Group’s 10th anniversary gala and awards ceremony last year.
When Cambry reached out a few months later to see if Tawia would be interested in launching a campaign through BLUEFund, the shoe designer said it was an unexpected but pleasant surprise. Since then, he’s received countless emails expressing support for TawiaDesigns and raised over $1,515 through the platform.
“Going through the rewards part of BLUEFund is kind of like a stress test,” Cambry said. “After they successfully raise enough money, we want these companies to go to the equity part of the platform and see which investors are there. This is a way for people to walk themselves into social entrepreneurship. We want local businesses to ask their communities for investment first, not banks.”
Since launching BLUEFund, Cambry said dozens of people have approached him about starting a campaign through the website. However, he wants the current campaigns to succeed first before adding more. In the future, the CEO also wants to expand the crowdfunding model to commercial real estate.
“A lot of people didn’t believe that you could have innovation in communities that are traditionally underserved when we started,” Cambry said. “But Blue1647 has proved that it’s possible. People show us what they can do, and we’ll work alongside them and build with them.”