I’ve been living in Chicago for about 6 years. I was only 22 when I moved here. In that sense, I’ve sort of grown up here. I’ve had the privilege and misfortune of allowing our nation’s most politically formidable city to groom me on my path to adulthood. During that time I’ve learned:

  • Scarcity is a lie
  • “No” just means “not here”
  • Fear masquerades as apathy

The latter tenant came to me recently while helping local business owners on our side of town improve their technological infrastructure. As a benefit corp, I’ve decided to donate 10% of my time back to the surrounding community, even though it’s probably more like 30. I’ve done this countless times and with the exception of a few cases, once I removed my support, the owner stagnates. Everything just sort of  . . . stops.   While working with one of the owners, we’ll call him Joe, I asked him about his lack of progress on our next steps. He simply said, “I thought you were going to do this tech stuff. I can’t afford this”.

“You can’t afford what? Gmail?!”
“Naw, I can’t afford to keep learning this tech stuff.”
“Well”, I said, paused and a little perplexed. The learning is free. “Hell, right now I’m free.”
“Learning this tech stuff takes away time from me making money”
“You’re not making money now! ‘The devil are you talking about?”
“I could be if I was more focused on bringing in some customers.” (And here’s the bomb. . .) “Ain’t nobody got time for this.”

At this point I was reeling. “Do you think I have time for this?!” To come here day after day and not see you make any progress?” We argued for what seemed like a half hour. After debating his personal Freakonomics about whether or not he could actually afford to learn, something made me stop and ask.

“What are you afraid of? What’s really going on”.

He stammered. Then went silent. After a few pregnant pauses. He finally let out a quiet, “I can’t keep going. I don’t know if I can keep running the business.” At this point it, hit me. He was like a lot of business owners. Trapped between what he used to know about his craft and what he doesn’t know about running a business in 2013. The Zion beyond his quagmire looked too overwhelming. He was waiting on a current, any current to take him under.

Even more frightening than his intention of failure, is theprobability divine law that he will get his wish. His few current consumers, potential consumers, surrounding resident and commercial communities will have to take on the loss of yet another business. The store will close and like many owners on the South Side, he owns the building that houses his storefront. Then he will stop paying mortgage because of both the financial and emotional loss of his business. Three months later,  the property will be shuttered and the community will have to contend with another vacant property.

Afterward, the community and prospective residents, will pass the property and say, “See, they (or in some cases, we) just don’t care.”

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