Dr. William Towns is the executive director of the impact investment fund Benefit Chicago and an Adjunct Lecturer of Social Impact at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. The Chicago native is a scholar, activist, and practitioner, who has spent a 20-year career helping to solve civic and urban issues at the structural level.
N’DIGO recently sat down with Dr. Towns to discuss Benefit Chicago and his process of selecting which businesses to fund.
N’DIGO: Tell us about Benefit Chicago. What kind of fund is it?
Dr. William Towns: Benefit Chicago is an impact $100 million investment fund created through a collaboration between the Chicago Community Trust, the MacArthur Foundation and Calvert Impact Capital. It was formed to address the lack of capital inflows into local businesses in the city and beyond.
We are interested in businesses at large that have a social enterprise with a profit motive, business that have tried to find capital but went unfunded and could not get a loan. We realize the challenge this puts business in. We are in our third year.
So far what have your investments been?
There’s been a variety of organizations, including Sweet Beginnings in North Lawndale. That’s a social enterprise that sells honey. We provided them with $500,000 for their website and for infrastructure.
We invested in a company that uses marketing analytics, Autonomy Works. The loan was for $600,000. Marketing analytics looks at ads hits and and views in marketing over the internet. Interestingly, 90 percent of their employees have autism. They are independent workers. It is a phenomenal group. This business was started because the owner’s son was autistic.
We invested $3 million into DLR Realty Advisors, LLC, which is owned by Leon Walker. His build out in Englewood with Whole Foods and Jewel Foods in Woodlawn has helped build up the potential of the community. Such projects are not just landing in the community, but are transforming working within the communities.
Leon has leveraged as he has built communities. We want to allow those projects to accelerate. You need capital to do this. Infusion of capital allows for community focus and provides opportunity for participation. The community benefits from work, employment, contracts and services. He works to create a work-training program. The money goes into forthcoming projects. We liked his approach.
How do you select the businesses you fund?
It’s an ongoing online application process with a minimum investment of $500,000. We worked with others for a lesser amount. The maximum investment is $5 million. The terms depend on the independent business. We are looking for businesses that could not be funded.
We are flexible. Interest rates range from three percent to six percent. Depending on history, investment has gone to urban communities. We are trying to get money into our communities, build wealth and enhance job readiness and job creation. We try to fill the void. The impact of business has to be local. Business benefit needs are local for job and wealth creation.
What do you do in your leisure time?
I spend a lot of time on boards and teaching at Northwestern Business School. I like to hang out with my two daughters and wife. I am their unpaid Uber driver.
What’s your favorite restaurant in Chicago?
Taste 222, located 222 North Canal Street.
What’s your favorite movie?
What’s on your playlist?
Prince and James Brown.