Updated: February 27, 2013 6:07AM
South Side native Chris Motley learned he had chosen wisely after he entered a scholarship program that enabled him to attend a college-prep high school in Rome, Ga.
Chris’ best friend and classmate at the Glenwood School For Boys, the son of a friend who told the Motley family about the program, “A Better Chance,” was murdered 16 years ago at age 15 — the same age as Chris at the time — in a gang fight on the South Side.
Motley, whose mother was a 13-year-old single teen-ager when he was born, had been accepted as a student at Darlington School, a 108-year-old boarding school that boasts 100 percent of its graduates gain admission to college.
“My friend Mario never applied to ‘A Better Chance’ and never got into the program that helped me access educational opportunities,” said Motley, 31, who went on to earn a bachelor’s in History at Columbia University in New York and a master’s of business administration (MBA) with an emphasis on entrepreneurship from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business.
A Better Chance is a New York-based national nonprofit that helps students of color apply for admission and financial aid to schools that prepare young people for high-quality academic experiences.
Motley grew up with his mother, his maternal grandmother and an uncle who was a few months younger. He has rented out his West Loop condo to live with his 64-year-old grandmother in the same house where he grew up at 116th and Halsted in the West Pullman neighborhood.
“You learn to grow up quickly and to take risks,” he said.
Motley has started his own company, whose beta website launches Saturday, to introduce middle-market companies to students and alums from top universities, similar to what “A Better Chance” did for him.
The company, BetterWeekdays.com, is set up to match talented professionals with career opportunities based on culture fit.
The web site is set up much like a dating service in that it captures users’ preferences and requires they complete a “culture fit” assessment, JobScript, before they are matched to jobs.
“The results give a holistic and validated representation of a candidate that a recruiter cannot capture from a resume,” Motley said. “This happens before the first conversation so we don’t waste anyone’s valuable time.”
Better Weekdays also partners with universities to help market its service.
Motley is drawing on his own experiences as an entrepreneur and as an executive vice president at middle-market company 1888 Mills.
He credits his younger-life hardships with teaching him to be flexible about work, so he earned money as a self-taught barber while he attended Darlington School. He realized two unmet needs: He had to earn money to help his mother pay part of his tuition, and he was one of a few African-American students there.
“I borrowed a pair of clippers from an older uncle and learned how to cut my hair,” he said.
He soon cornered the market in cutting hair for students from 25 states and countries who needed his barbering expertise and were unfamiliar with the area.
“I quickly found out I could increase my prices,” Motley said. “When I recognized the socioeconomic status of my classmates, I pushed up the price from $3 to $10 to $15. I had loyal customers and still cut my hair to this day.”
Motley also had loyal peers who voted him freshman-class president, despite the fact that many of his ninth-grade peers had gone to school together at Darlington School since second grade. The school housed both a day school and the boarding school.
After a four-year stint working as an oil and interest-rate-products trader at Goldman Sachs, Motley got the itch to start his own business to solve “a big problem,” and make a wider impact on the world.
Once again using his networking skills, Motley called on a family friend who owned the Oak Brook-based company, 1888 Mills, which manufactures home and commercial textiles for large retailers and hotels. Motley’s grandmother, Mary Ramsey, has worked at the company for 30 years, working her way up from receptionist to customer relationship manager.
By coincidence, the Cheatham family, part-owner of 1888 Mills, was a major benefactor of Darlington School.
Also by coincidence, 1888 Mills CEO Jonathan Simon was contemplating the same business opportunity that Motley proposed: Train women in Africa to cut and sew uniforms for the institutional apparel market — scrubs, aprons, chefs’ coats and the like — that 1888 Mills uses to produce its goods, giving women much-needed jobs and income, setting up a manufacturing platform in Africa, and letting 1888 Mills benefit from Africa’s duty-free exports via the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act.
Motley got to implement his idea as executive vice president in charge of the Institutional Apparel division. After he visited Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, he chose Ghana in West Africa as the site of the company’s operations because the government cooperated, English is the national language, the country has a stable history centered in the rule of law, and it is on a port that makes its shipping faster than China, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the bulk of 1888’s platform is located.
The business, Lucky 1888 Mills, employs 520 — a four-fold increase from its inception nearly two years ago.
The parent company, 1888 Mills, employs 15,000 globally, including about 30 in Oak Brook and 250 at one of the last United States-based towel manufacturers in Griffin, Ga.
Motley worked on his idea for BetterWeekdays.com at the Founder Institute’s Chicago chapter, and now works out of the 1871 tech hub at the Merchandise Mart.
The Founder Institute differs from Chicago’s 13 incubators, accelerators and shared-space offices by requiring participants to qualify in an online aptitude test and a written application. Participants must pay a $900 fee, attend four months of coursework and give up a 3.5 percent equity stake that is shared among themselves, their mentors and the Founder Institute. The companies’ stakes in each other continue for 10 years after the class graduates. If a company merges, is sold or goes public within that decade, 30 percent of the proceeds goes back to the mentors, 30 percent to the graduating class, 25 percent to the local chapter and 15 percent to the Founder Institute.
Students must incorporate a company before they can graduate.
Of the for-profit institute’s 37 chapters worldwide, Chicago’s first two classes boast 70-percent graduation rates compared with an average of 30 to 40 percent.
Jason Jacobsohn, 39, director of the Chicago chapter and a consultant who has advised entrepreneurs on venture capital and other investments, said the local chapter aims to have 35 to 40 in each class, but so far has had 21 and 22 people in each.
“We test them and push them,” he said.
Jacobsohn has leveraged his experience to attract mentors and sponsors to help the would-be entrepreneurs.
He had previously worked as director of client services for the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, where he ran a statewide innovation contest, and as an analyst at the National Association of Realtors and at Venture Capital Online.
After Motley’s BetterWeekdays.com won a finalist’s award in the Founders Institute’s global competition on July 25, the startup has received $100,000 in investments and is raising a new round of money.
The Founder Institute is accepting applications until Feb. 10 for the Spring 2013 semester. Interested parties can apply at http://fi.co/join/ideation.