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Northern Illinois Community Initiatives to provide access to $1 million in small business loans to support women, minority entrepreneurs over the next four years

Foundation will partner with Allies for Community Business to target communities across Nicor Gas' service territory

NAPERVILLE, Ill., March 29, 2023 /PRNewswire/ -- Northern Illinois Community Initiatives (NICI), a foundation created by Nicor Gas, is announcing a new economic development program called Northern Illinois Community Ventures (NICV). It has been established to help small business startups and businesses owned by women and minority entrepreneurs access the capital and technical support they need to grow and thrive.

In partnership with Allies for Community Business (A4CB), a community development financial institution based in Chicago, NICV will invest $1 million in funding — $250,000 a year over the next four years — in target communities of south suburban Cook County, Joliet and Rockford. A4CB will conduct outreach to business owners and encourage those who qualify to apply for a loan.

In alignment with Nicor Gas' commitment to work with diverse suppliers, NICV is placing the grant funds into the First Women's Bank, the first and only women-led and women-focused bank in the country. First Women's Bank opened its headquarters in Chicago's West Town neighborhood in fall 2021 with a mission to help women entrepreneurs access capital to start and expand their businesses.

Northern Illinois Community Ventures builds upon NICI's mission to attract investment, mobilize partners, and connect vital resources to underserved communities in Nicor Gas' service areas.

In 2021, 1.2 million small businesses in Illinois made up 99.6% of the state's businesses, representing more than 350,000 self-employed people of color, according to a survey by Next Street Financial, which accelerates the impact institutions and advisors have on small businesses. 

"Small businesses are the bedrock of our state's economy. However, since the pandemic, those owned by women, Black, Latino and Asian entrepreneurs have faced unique challenges accessing capital as lending rates have climbed," said Nicor Gas President and CEO, and Chair of the NICI Board of Directors, Wendell Dallas. "For many of them, a small business loan could mean the difference between going to the next level or going out of business."

Illinois has seen a record number of new businesses created since the start of the pandemic. Those owned by people of color and women are overrepresented in industries hardest hit by the economic impact of COVID-19. The outlook for small businesses is uncertain and rapidly changing, according to the survey. Interest rates — and thus financing costs — are expected to continue to rise in the near term, reducing inflation but also consumer spending. Since the pandemic, a greater proportion of firms nationwide are reporting financial challenges, and more debt is being used to address these operational expenses rather than to help a business grow or expand.

"Many of the women- and minority-owned businesses we serve have struggled to recover from the effects of the pandemic," said Brad McConnell, CEO of A4CB. "Our team will continue to work with small businesses to help them identify strategic ways to grow, and we will provide the financing they need to flourish." 

A4CB has served small businesses in NICV's target communities for nearly three decades. The first loans funded by this partnership are expected to be disbursed in May 2023 and will be announced on the NICI website at Eligible residents can apply for a loan or request to meet with a business coach at

"Allies served more small businesses in the first year of the pandemic than any year in its history, so this funding will bolster their capabilities and outreach at a critical time for struggling small business owners," said NICI Executive Director Tovah McCord

In Illinois, small businesses employ 45% of the state's workforce — more than 2.5 million people. Gaps in funding are most pronounced in the market for early stage "friends and family" equity investments and loans between $50,000 and $250,000. Black- and Asian-owned businesses are overrepresented in the hardest hit industries, accounting for more than 40% of businesses in the segment. Latino-owned businesses are overrepresented in impacted but surviving industries, accounting for nearly 40 percent. At the same time, approval rates on lending products have declined significantly.

About Northern Illinois Community Initiatives

Northern Illinois Community Initiatives (NICI) build a more vibrant and equitable region by investing in bold economic development initiatives that help communities thrive. For more information, visit

About Nicor Gas

Nicor Gas is one of four natural gas distribution companies of Southern Company Gas, a wholly owned subsidiary of Southern Company (NYSE: SO). Nicor Gas serves more than 2.3 million customers in a service territory that encompasses most of the northern third of Illinois, excluding the city of Chicago. For more information, visit

Media contact: Allison Gregoire | | (470) 733-2076.

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SOURCE Northern Illinois Community Initiatives - (NICI)

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