On a recent weekday morning this month, Valerie Hammer is on a phone call with a supplier of one of the designer lines at her new women’s clothing store, Azul Boutique, in south suburban Frankfort.
The shop has been open barely two months. There may be a pandemic and struggling economy, but that didn’t stop Hammer from starting a new business.
“Opening a boutique is something that I always wanted to do,” she said. “It’s been a passion of mine, and I think it will be a lot of fun.”
The boutique is situated in Frankfort’s historic downtown district with quaint shops, giving it a feel of being far away from the hustle and bustle of Chicago, although it’s barely a 30-minute drive from downtown.
Hammer said even though many women are working from home these days, they still want to look fashionable.
“I sell clothes that you can wear from home. And then I have the dressier types of clothing for the women who still have to go out, and they are vice presidents of their businesses, realtors that have to dress accordingly,” said Hammer, 53, who lives in Munster, Ind.
Hammer opened her shop around the time nearly 4,000 businesses in Illinois had permanently closed their doors due to the pandemic, according to Yelp. Despite the risks of opening a business in 2020, Hammer, who also runs an accounting firm, said she didn’t let that scare her.
“I did not put all my eggs in the same basket. And that is what most people do. They overextend themselves,” she said. “I didn’t do any of that. Being an accountant, I’m careful. I’m cautious.”
Surprisingly, given the pandemic and economic conditions, Hammer’s entrepreneurial spirit is not uncommon.
More than 169,500 businesses were started in Illinois in 2020, according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. That was the highest number of business startups in the Midwest last year and sixth-highest nationally.
Illinois saw a nearly 45% surge in new businesses in 2020 compared with the prior year, according to state figures. That was the biggest year-over-year percentage increase in the Midwest and fourth-largest in the nation.
“Entrepreneurs throughout the U.S. are starting new businesses at the fastest rate in more than a decade,” said Kristi Dula, head of the Illinois Office of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology. “They are looking to seize upon pent-up demand and new opportunities after the pandemic shut down, thus reshaping our economy.”
“We’re seeing women, especially women of color, that are leading the way with new business starts in the nation, and we’re also seeing that in Illinois as well,” Dula added.
Lenore Medellin, 37, who is Mexican and Puerto Rican, decided to launch a catering business in Chicago, despite having no prior experience running a business.
“We kind of just started an Instagram page, and it started from there,” said Medellin, who launched The Impeccable Bite with her husband, Rene, 42, in December on the Southeast Side.
“And then, during quarantine, we kind of just opened the business. We just said, ‘Let’s start small, and we’ll start making charcuterie platters,’ which he makes all the time for family parties. And I make them. But he’s mostly the cook. I do mostly the business side.”
Lenore Medellin used to work in the catering department at a Northwest Indiana casino, and her husband is a trained chef. While there are no big weddings or conferences happening due to the pandemic, the couple’s business caters to small gatherings.
Medellin said she understood the risks of going into business in the current environment, but supporters urged her on.
“We got a lot of positive feedback from family and friends saying to do it,” she said. “We’re very careful, and we have food backgrounds, so I kind of felt more comfortable going forward with it.”
Hammer, who is of Spanish and German descent, advises people seeking to start their own business to get a mentor to offer advice.
Dula of the Illinois Office of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology said it operates small business centers through the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. She said the centers are a first line of support for entrepreneurs looking to launch or grow their businesses.
“They provide one-on-one mentoring, counseling and access to resources at no cost to the business,” she said.
Hammer encourages people, especially women, to be unafraid of the negative headlines about businesses going under during the pandemic.
“I would say do it. Follow your dreams,” she said. “That’s the only way you’re going to be fulfilled as an individual, as a person, as a woman.”