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African American entrepreneurs are on a tear. Their numbers grew by 45%, to 1.2 million, between 1997 and 2002, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent data. That compares with a 10% increase in the total number of businesses. "This is the first time that the change has been that significant," says Thomas Boston, professor of economics at Georgia Tech. "When you see the figures, it's mind-boggling."

Nowhere is the surge stronger than in Cook County, Ill. In Cook County, with Chicago at its heart, the number of black-owned companies grew 69% during that period, to 54,760. That trounces the 52% leap in second-place Kings County, N.Y., which includes Brooklyn. The jump is even more astonishing considering that Cook County's black population grew only 4.2%.

As with most socioeconomic phenomena, there is no single explanation. Some national trends are in play: Many blacks have become less enamored with the corporate world after being among the first to lose their jobs during the wave of layoffs in the 1990s, says William Spriggs, Chairman of the Economics Dept. at Howard University. Diversity programs at many corporations have resulted in large companies doing more business with black suppliers. And state and local governments have pushed through legislation that supports black economic development.

Cook County, especially, boasts a rich black heritage. "Chicago has a history of black business development," says the Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose Chicago-based RainbowPUSH

Coalition has battled on behalf of black companies since the late Sixties. The organization develops relationships for blacks with corporate "trading partners" through a bureau that meets every Saturday. Then there have been influential black politicians, including Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, who took the helm in 1983 and instituted affirmative-action policies for minority businesses looking for contracts. Barack Obama, who was an advocate for black business as a state senator before he became a U.S. senator, and the president of the Illinois state senate, Emil Jones, are among those who have successfully lobbied to get some of the region's pension money into the hands of black-owned money managers.

Above all, there's the sense of community. Chicago may be the nation's third-largest city, but its black entrepreneurs embrace the small-town tradition of helping others. Networking groups such as Chicago's Alliance of Business Leaders & Entrepreneurs, and Arise, a training program for new entrepreneurs, provide vital support. And entrepreneurs are quick to lend their peers a hand. At the Maxima Barber Salon Nail Spa, owner Rahman Williams advertises other local black-owned businesses on a video screen and showcases other companies' products.

Still, black businesses in Cook County are small and often remain so. The bulk of the county's growth—90%—came from self-employed entrepreneurs. But advocates say that given access to capital and an encouraging environment, many of these startups will turn into thriving larger companies. In the accompanying slide show, entrepreneurs, politicians, and advocates explain why Cook County shines.

Click here to see the slide show

By Roger O. Crockett, with additional reporting by Amy Barrett and Jeremy Quittner


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