Continuing in its effort to transform itself from a social services organization to one focusing on economic empowerment, the Chicago Urban League recently inducted 16 entrepreneurs into its nextONE program, a new initiative announced by the group last week.

At a noon luncheon last Wednesday at the Metropolitan Club, Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson called the new initiative an important milestone in the 91-year-old organization’s history.

“[It’s] a really important day for African-American entrepreneurs and the African-American business community,” Jackson said.

The program focuses on businesses that generate revenues between $100,000 and $5 million.

The League expects that the initiative will give black business owners expert assistance in expanding their businesses and building sustainable wealth.

Jackson, who became the Chicago Urban League’s first female president last year, said the program will provide the entrepreneurs with counseling and assist them with gaining funds to expand their businesses.

The organization has partnered with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management to build and operate its Entrepreneurship Center. The center will offer classes and training to participants.

The nextONE program will work with a new class of entrepreneurs every year and will serve as the center’s flagship offering.

The program is designed to take place over a six-month period.

NextONE is just one example of how the league has shifted its focus to a more business-based, economic development model.

Jackson said economic empowerment is the next phase of the modern day civil rights movement, with Chicago being the most opportune place to start.

“We wanted to really stress and focus on economic empowerment as a way to drive social change,” she said. “Chicago is really the mecca of black entrepreneurship [and] is equally poised to be the epicenter of this movement.”

Debbie Myers Martin, a program coordinator in the Illinois state treasurer’s office, said the Urban League’s new focus was necessary because black entrepreneurs have typically been overlooked.

“Minority business is a tougher road in order to be successful,” Martin said. “I think that focus is necessary from all areas of the social scheme, but in particular, the Urban League is doing a wonderful thing for all of us.”

Nicole Jones, president of Sensual Steps Shoe Salon and one the 16 entrepreneurs in the nextONE inaugural class, said she had continually tried to expand her business, but was denied the financing and resources to do so. She said she was ecstatic about the opportunity to work with the Urban League.

“It feels like the Ed McMahon people coming to bring you one of those big checks,” she said. “I think that my education and the growth and development of my company are equivalent to a $1 million check.”