Entrepreneurs shine in Evanston

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Evanston is a hotbed for entrepreneurs. Three business owners explain what they think makes small businesses thrive in the city.

Miguel Wong owns coLab Evanston, 900 Chicago Ave., a co-working business, and is a partner in Box Evanston, 739 Main St., a boxing and cross-training gym. He didn’t set out to create businesses in the traditional sense.

“It came out of needs that I have, for the starting point. I wasn’t thinking about those as being a business. I happen to be a very prototypical person, and there was a need in Evanston for these things and so it kind of worked out,” Wong said.

He has been working for a web development company since 2006, but he wanted to have a space to work on outside projects; coffee shops weren’t cutting it.

He was involved in community groups, and he attributes his business opportunities to his network. “I usually don’t say no when people ask for help, so I ended up meeting a lot of people through nonprofit projects,” he said. “Through these community services, I was able to build up some network of cool people doing cool things. We started meeting up and enjoying being with each other.”

From there, the idea for developing a co-working space arose. Wong and his business partner leased a building in South Evanston that now hosts many freelancers for monthly fees.

A little later, Wong was looking to be more fit. He ended up meeting a boxing trainer who was looking to open a gym. Together they came up with idea for Box Evanston, a boxing gym with a focus on small-group classes and individual training.

Wong admits that Evanston has been a great locale for boutique startups.

“My home is less than a seven-minute walk from here, so the theme of convenience naturally played in here,” he said. “There’s really a wealth of talented educated, early-to-late-30-year-olds who want to be active. Combined with the luck factor and networking factor, these things can happen. I’ve been lucky to be in the middle of that. I do see that as the future of Evanston, especially South Evanston where I live.”

Malik Turley, owner of Hip Circle Studio, 709 Washington St., also opened her business to be close to home. She had been teaching various dance and yoga classes in the Chicago area for years.

“Having grown up in Evanston and living here now, Evanston was my first choice for location. I opened Hip Circle Studio to create a space where women of all ages, sizes and backgrounds could come to have a good time getting and staying healthy. I wanted to create a fitness home so it made sense to do so in my home town.”

Now, the studio serves as a family wellness center for all stages of life, hosting fitness classes, maternal services and parental resources.

Another entrepreneur started her business to provide multiple resources as well, but targeted to creative businesses’ online success. Jennifer Rapp Peterson, founder of IndieMade, got the idea her tech company in the mid-2000s.

“The real catalyst was when I started my third business’s website (selling my handmade plush toys), the tools for building a website were very limited. Having a background in software, I knew there were applications available to make it much easier and less expensive. So I started IndieMade,” she said.

Building a business in Evanston worked for her, Peterson said, because not only does the city support tech innovation, but also the city has countless opportunities for artists like her and her clients.

“In fact, I started selling my handmade toys at Cornucopia Gift Fair and at the farmers market near the theatres,” she said.

Business comes full circle in this entrepreneurial crowd. Peterson said that is was easy to find tech partners, and she even rented office space at coLab.

“We have very, very discerning residents here. We have younger professionals that have the means and are looking for quality. That goes with the craft and boutique culture. I’m very excited to see that happening in Evanston,” Wong said.

These business owners also stay involved with promoting the commerce in their areas. Turley is president of the Main Street Station Merchants Association.

“I am just now starting my third term on the board and my second term as board president,” Turley said. “My role is really one of guiding and coordinating the work that we’re doing to promote the area and offer support to the member businesses. Our area is already wonderfully vibrant, and we’re seeing new and exciting things happening in the district.”