Alum hopes to empower community by supporting black-owned businesses

After asking themselves how they could support the community they came from, the Andersons developed the Empowerment Experiment. They decided that they would spend their entire yearly budget—about $120,000—at black-owned businesses.

By Ella Christoph

University of Chicago alum Maggie Anderson (J.D. ’98, M.B.A. ’01) and her husband John, have pledged to only buy from black-owned businesses for a year, hoping to revitalize the black community through what they call self-help economics.

After asking themselves how they could support the community they came from, the Andersons developed the Empowerment Experiment (named the Ebony Experiment until March). They decided that they would spend their entire yearly budget—about $120,000—at black-owned businesses.

Maggie, who now lives in Oak Park with her husband and their two daughters, said that she and John, who is a financial planner at Axa Advisors, began thinking about the project back when she was living in Hyde Park and earning her M.B.A. They would go out to restaurants downtown and talk with friends about the economic struggles that the black community faced, she said, but they realized that was exactly the problem—they weren’t financially supporting the black community.

Anderson said that she’s been aware of the challenges facing the black community since she was a child, but it wasn’t until she was taking classes at the Booth School of Business and living in Hyde Park that financial issues became a focal point for her.

Her experiences in Hyde Park and at the Graduate School of Business were about “really starting to see where the black community stopped making progress economically,” she said. “[John and I] talk about these business issues a lot because of our M.B.A.s.”

The project is not an experiment in name only. Steven Rogers, director of the Kellogg Entrepreneurial Practice Center at Northwestern, is executive director for the Empowerment Experiment and is studying the Anderson’s experience.

Some of the academic goals of the experiment include determining where there are unmet needs and the quality and pricing relative to typical expenditures. “It’s about learning something and about finding a solution to the problem,” Anderson said.

Now Anderson drives miles out of her way to support black businesses. Some of her favorite Hyde Park spots—both while she was at the U of C and today—include C’est Si Bon, Third World Cafe, and Kimbark Liquors. “I do a lot of my shopping, because of the pledge, in Hyde Park and Bronzeville,” Maggie said. “Hyde Park is a strong black entrepreneurial and professional community.”

Park 52 is one of Anderson’s “Favorite Finds,” listed on her website. A number of businesses have noticed an uptick in customers due to their endorsement, Anderson said, who hopes to turn her website into an online community for people who have joined her in supporting black businesses. Anderson hopes to inspire others to invest in the black community. “Do something about it. If you’re so proud…why aren’t you supporting those businesses?” she said.

Anderson contemplated the effect efforts like hers could have on black businesses and communities if just 5 percent of the country—of all races—made a commitment to support black businesses 10 percent of the time. “Could we save Gary? Could we rescue Detroit?” she asked.

“It was a call to action…for middle-class people who care about the community and want to do something,” Anderson said. “Most black people are not actively supporting black businesses.” She said that while some blacks support black businesses because it’s their only option, it is rare that middle-to-upper class blacks support black businesses if they have other choices.

Anderson has gotten mail, phone calls, and Facebook messages from people who have been inspired by her project. “The black people are so thirsty for something to happen in our community.”

The Andersons have faced a number of unexpected challenges, Maggie said. Most difficult is hearing from people who are opposed to the project. “We did not anticipate some of the vehement negative reactions,” she said. “This is not racism…. This is for us personally, completely out of love and pride.”

The experiment has also presented practical challenges. Anderson said she’s had the most difficulty finding black drug and general merchandise stores. To her shock, she hasn’t been able to find a single black-owned black beauty supply store in the Chicago area, although they are patronized almost entirely by black shoppers.

However, the difficulties of the experiment haven’t made Anderson any less enthusiastic, “I’m going to keep looking online, I’m going to keep researching, I’m going to keep talking to people,” she said. “Maybe something big can come from this.”