Illinois Governor JB Pritzker had just closed all bars and restaurants to dine-in traffic when Jennifer Bisgaier, ’20, opened her email to find a request from Amy Hermalik, the lecturer from whom she’d taken a winter quarter seminar on segregation in Chicago. Hermalik, who is also the associate director of the Law School’s Institute for Justice Clinic on Entrepreneurship, was looking for volunteers to help build a website that would drive traffic to Chicago-area businesses that were offering online shopping, curbside pickup, and delivery for food and other essentials.
“It was obvious there was going to be a massive disruption,” Hermalik recalled, describing the mid-March weekend that marked the beginning of the Law School’s spring break. “People were not going to be out and shopping as much, and they would be looking for certain items that they could no longer find, and it just struck me as the perfect opportunity for us to highlight all of these incredible small businesses.”
Bisgaier isn’t even a part of the IJ clinic, but as she read Hermalik’s email in her Hyde Park apartment, she knew she wanted to help. She hit reply and, soon after, joined six IJ clinic students in working to soften the blow for area businesses. Three of the students focused on creating information sheets for small businesses that explained issues such as small business loans, unemployment benefits, tax deferral programs, and the federal Families First Act. Bisgaier and three others worked to create Shop in Place Chicago, the website aimed at making it easy for Chicagoans to purchase food, soap, board games, books, and much more from small local businesses. The site includes verified information about hundreds of shops and restaurants and is searchable by neighborhood and business type.
“It was a relief to be able to do something concrete to help out,” said Bisgaier, who had planned to spend spring break cycling in Arizona with friends before the pandemic hit. “It gave me a chance to forget about my own concerns and have a larger effect on people who are truly struggling in this city.”
The students on the two projects worked throughout their two-week break, with Hermalik and IJ Clinic Director Beth Kregor reviewing memos, offering guidance, and supervising progress. The clinic’s national organization, the Institute for Justice, built the Shop in Place Chicago website, creating an easy-to-use interface that has since been shared free of charge in other cities. Bisgaier and the rest of the website team—Kurt Cronican,’ 21; Erica Zhao, ’21; and Michaela Mapes, ’21—came up with categories of items people might need and began reaching out to local stores to find out what they planned to offer. They placed a special emphasis on identifying and highlighting businesses in low-income communities, such as Englewood, Back of the Yards, and Chatham.
“I'm very worried about the impact [this pandemic] will have on the South Side community, on areas that are predominantly African American or Latino and where you have low-income business owners and less community wealth,” Hermalik said. “They’re more likely to struggle to keep their doors open during a crisis like this, and everyone should work to prevent this crisis from increasing the already existing racial disparities in business ownership and business success.”
As the crisis and its impact on small businesses grew, so did the website. The site launched on March 25 with 12 businesses; by April 10, it had expanded to more than 400, with a growing number of categories and neighborhoods, including a few suburbs.
“At one point we realized we should probably have pet supplies, and then other categories came up—it’s a constant iterative process,” Hermalik said. Businesses can submit themselves for consideration by filling out a form on the site and answering questions such as what they offer and how, whether they have 50 or fewer employees, and where customers can find them online.
Bisgaier herself used the website, diverting dollars she might have spent with large-scale national retailers to a North Side spice shop and a general store.
Meanwhile, as the website came together, the students creating the information sheets were hustling to get up to speed on emerging laws and regulations, sometimes calling regulatory authorities to clarify rapidly changing legal matters. Itka Safir, ’21, wrote a memo about Economic Injury Disaster Loans offered through the Small Business Administration as part of the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, the first of the federal relief packages. Katie Karnosh, ’21, wrote about tax deferral, unemployment benefits, and other relief initiatives, at one point calling the Illinois Department of Employment Security for additional guidance.
“I was glad to have an opportunity to use some of the skills that I had learned in the clinic over the past year to help both clients of the clinic and also other small businesses in Chicago,” Karnosh said. “Many were desperately looking for guidance—everything was happening so quickly, and they were trying to figure out how they could maintain their businesses.”
Another student, Barrett Mills, ’21, wrote a memo about the second of the federal relief bills, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. “He was working on it as it was moving through Congress,” Hermalik said.
The memos, as well as other resources, are available on the clinic’s website and are linked from the “Add Your Business” page on Shop in Place Chicago.
Kregor said the students’ willingness to work on the projects over spring break demonstrated “their professional dedication to the clients they serve directly and to the broader community of low-income entrepreneurs in need of advice and assistance.”
“Their sensitivity, their diligence, and their work ethic are the markers of the amazing lawyers they are becoming,” she added.
Hermalik said the work offered everyone involved a chance to make a difference.
“In a situation like this it can be hard to know what you can do to help,” Hermalik said. “But it reminds me of something we often say in my seminar. Yes, you might feel like, ‘Where on earth do I even start?’ But the other way to think about it is this: With a problem this big there are many places to start and many places where you can have an impact. All you have to do is pick one.”