Neighborhood Opportunity Fund entrepreneur Skyler Dees in his new storefront space.
This profile is part of a series that highlights the work of government, business and community leaders in creating a more equitable and inclusive Chicago region. Each of these stories is featured in "Our Equitable Future"—two dozen recommendations to advance equity MPC released in response to the 2017 Cost of Segregation findings.
Skyler Dees began cooking when he was two years old. It’s a passion that drove the 27 year-old North Lawndale native to become a self-taught chef. “As I thought about entering the workforce, I realized that I could cook,” he says. “And more important, it fulfilled me.”
Dees wanted to start his own catering business. But, like many entrepreneurs of color in Chicago, he soon realized he was up against numerous social and economic challenges. It was a reality that made his dream seem almost impossible.
“The personal equity that I had in my company could only get me so far,” Dees says.
With the help of Alderman Michael Scott of the 24th Ward, Dees acquired a storefront space at the MLK Legacy Apartments. The building, which is just steps away from where Dees grew up, is located right along a stretch of 16th Street that offers few healthy and fresh food options. A GoFundMe campaign was the first step in launching his business. And even though he secured more than $2,000 in donations, it wasn’t nearly close to what he needed.
That changed in May 2017 when he won the inaugural City of Chicago Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, a grant that Dees used to help build out a commercial kitchen. It’ll take $75,000 for Dees to complete the buildout, including the installation of professional cooking and refrigeration equipment. The Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant is paying approximately 65 percent of the total cost.
“It definitely helped me bridge the gap between what I was doing with my company and what I had the potential to achieve,” he says.
Launched in 2016 by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund generates money from downtown growth to support commercial and cultural developments in communities that have experienced underinvestment for decades, primarily on the South and West Sides. Since then, it’s supported the development and expansion of more than 60 businesses and cultural assets. The additional capital has been a game changer for Dees and other awardees, but he hopes to see more investments in communities across Chicago.
“It’s allowed me to have equity in the future that Chicago is building,” Skyler says. “But there’s so much work that needs to be done.”
Explore more of the stories in this series.
Who's advancing equity in the Chicago region right now?
This 5-minute video highlights some government, community and business leaders who are already taking action to make our region more equitable and inclusive every day.
MPC thanks CIBC US for generously sponsoring this video.
MPC’s Blogs and Data Points on community development and equity issues such as this are made possible in part by the Chicago Community Trust – Seale Fund, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Field Foundation of Illinois, the Bowman Lingle Charitable Trust, the Conant Family Foundation, and individual donors.