Tosha Wilson was born in the community she serves and is a proud graduate of Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois. She received her bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University in Communications and her master’s degree in Children’s Law and Police from Loyola University School of Law.
In 2018, Tosha Wilson and Jacqui White had the idea of opening The Laundry Cafe (TLC), a laundromat that incorporates comfortable seating, fresh brewed coffee, a book room and a yoga and meditation space. While trying to turn their business idea into a reality, they ran into an issue with acquiring capital. They were turned down for the small business loans they applied for. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Tosha said: “Two professionals with decent jobs (and) good credit scores, and the bank basically told us, ‘You don’t have enough experience. I just thought, `How in the world do you beat the red tape to get a dream to unfold?’”
In frustration Tosha founded Boosting Black Business, an internet-based community group that helped raise over $100,000 for Black owned start-up companies throughout Chicagoland in 2020. Heidi Stevens of The Chicago Tribune, named her as one of the “10 People that Gave Me Hope in 2020.”
This grew into her current role, as a co-developer of an $8 million project in Evanston called The Aux, which is dedicated to healing, wellness, racial equity and entrepreneurship. The Laundry Café will open as one of the businesses inside The Aux.
Tosha is deeply involved in the Evanston community and has been a part of many outreach programs for youth, coaches middle school girls’ basketball, and is currently a board member with two great Evanston organizations. She is also a police Sergeant with the Evanston Police Department and has been with the department for over 20 years. She became the first Evanston born African American woman to be a Sergeant with the Evanston Police Department following her great-Uncle William Logan Jr. who was the first African American from Evanston to do so. In her spare time, sleeping, playing with her puppy, catching up with friends and watching TV is what she does to relax. She is also the mother of her two sisters, who she adopted 21 years ago, and they have challenged her along the way to be a better person, sister, mom, community member and police officer.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:15] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. For Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo in order to build better for everyone. And speaking of building better, I’m very excited to share that my company, Small Change, is now raising capital through a community round that is open to the public. Small Change is a leading equity crowdfunding platform for impact investment in real estate. For as little as $250, anyone 18 and over can invest in Small Change, helping to fuel our growth as we disrupt the old boys club of capital that routinely ignores so many qualified people and projects. Please visit wefunder.com/smallchange to review the full details of our raise and to make an investment if you can. And remember, investing is risky. Don’t invest more than you can afford to lose.
Eve: [00:01:50] Today, I’m talking with Tosha Wilson. Born in the city of Evanston, Illinois, and now a police officer there. In 2018, Tosha and her cousin, Jackie White, had the idea of opening the Laundry Café, a laundromat that incorporates comfortable seating, fresh brewed coffee, a book room and a yoga and meditation space. But finding a loan defeated them. They were turned down for every small business loan they applied to. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Tosha said, “two professionals with decent jobs and good credit scores and the bank basically told us, you don’t have enough experience. I just thought, how in the world do you beat the red tape to get a dream to unfold?” In frustration, Tosha founded Boosting Black Business, an Internet based community group that helped raise over $100,000 for Black-owned startup companies throughout Chicagoland in 2020. Heidi Stephens of the Chicago Tribune named her as one of the ten people that gave me hope in 2020. This grew into her current role as a co-developer of an $8 million project in Evanston called The Aux, planned as a 100% community owned Black business hub. You’ll want to hear more.
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Eve: [00:03:49] Hi, Tosha. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Tosha Wilson: [00:03:52] Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Eve: [00:03:55] I know you’re a police officer in the city of Evanston, Illinois, and that you’ve been plotting your next act. I also read that you’ve been heard to say, beyond being a police officer, I’m a Black woman and I understand social injustice. I wanted to ask you what social injustice means to you, just as a starting point.
Tosha: [00:04:16] I mean, from a starting point, I have been a police officer for about 20 years. I’m a sergeant now. But watching my parents both suffer addictions in the crack cocaine epidemic through the nineties, starting in the late eighties. So, I could just see how my parents were kind of criminalized versus just say, people who have meth addictions now and it’s considered medical and not criminal. So, there are just different aspects of how I see the world from these different bubbles and how those things try to, they actually pushed me to be a better police officer, understanding social ills, whether it’s how we got involved in a Laundry Cafe and how it turned into the Aux due to trying to get loans and being denied and. You know, schooling.
Eve: [00:05:10] There’s many, many aspects to this.
Tosha: [00:05:12] Many aspects, yeah.
Eve: [00:05:13] That touch your lives. I’m going to ask you about this, as well. So, what does community mean to you then?
Tosha: [00:05:20] Community means everything to me. Like I feel like we are in this age of social media. There’s nothing communal about it. Like we’re not touching each other, we’re not hanging with each other, we’re not laughing together. We’re sending laughing emojis, but we don’t feel like that connection. And then I feel like we have lost that. And community used to be, if Eve was my neighbor and I was outside doing something I wasn’t supposed to be doing, Eve had permission to say, Tosha, get in here and let me talk to you, and everyone would support you.
Eve: [00:05:55] And more than that, we actually had front porches, right, back then?
Tosha: [00:05:58] Yes. Yes. And we’d wave at people driving by. And I don’t even know my neighbors that way. It’s terrible.
Eve: [00:06:04] Oh, that’s awful. Yeah. Well, I don’t either. So, yeah. So, you have been plotting your next act. And the first part of that was the Laundry Cafe. What is the Laundry Cafe?
Tosha: [00:06:19] Well, the Laundry Cafe was something I saw, like, just kind of surfing the internet, not looking for any business ideas. Let me, mind you, I was not looking for business ideas. But I saw some laundromats in Europe that were just super cool. They were like the spot, not like these nasty, bug infested, no one’s maintaining them sort of laundry where you go in there to clean your clothes in a dirty place. And I’m like, Can you imagine if you could just do like this mundane, silly chore, but you could kind of hang out with people, drink coffee, sit on your computer, do homework? And I’m like, Ooh, what if we did, like both? And so, I had been thinking about it, and then my poor cousin, I just dragged her right on into this. And thankfully she was supportive. She became my partner. But we decided, like, our community needed this place, like we had so many places to go to as a kid to just hang out. And we thought, why not Evanston? Why not now?
Eve: [00:07:18] So, in building this business, which isn’t open yet, we’re going to get to that later, what are the challenges you’ve been faced with?
Tosha: [00:07:26] Well, when we thought, Let’s make it an LLC, let’s get started. Let’s make this a real thing, we’ll need some laundry equipment, obviously. So, we were willing to go to the bank. Throw our Social Security numbers on paper and go for this loan for equipment. And the bank said no. And we’re thinking, well, why not? We have the collateral, we have the credit scores, we have jobs. You know, we’re secure in so many things. And they said, well, you don’t have laundry experience. We’re like, Oh, is that is that the end? I’m like, we’re not washing the clothes. The machines are. But, you know, I think we have pretty good customer service, you know, being a police officer.
Eve: [00:08:10] It’s all about customer service, right.
Tosha: [00:08:12] It’s a customer service business. And I’m thinking, we do this all day in the worst situation, and I don’t think laundry would top what we deal with. So, we didn’t understand and it kind of got out that we were denied and the community swarmed and they were disappointed, and they brought the story to other people. And that’s kind of how we started surfing our way towards The Aux and the connections to different people.
Eve: [00:08:40] So, just to finish up that story, did you ever find a bank or is that still out there?
Tosha: [00:08:46] No, we never found a bank. We never went back. We were kind of…
Eve: [00:08:51] Very disheartening.
Tosha: [00:08:52] Yeah, we were just discouraged and we’re like, okay, let’s take a step back. Maybe this is not what we’re supposed to be doing. Maybe this is not the time. And that’s kind of where we just left it. But I did create, you know, a little community group on Facebook Boosting Black Business. Because I felt that during the pandemic, if we’re being told no, other people are being told no. So, I was able to raise like $110,000 for nine other businesses just sitting in this room saying, I want to help someone else, and the community, that’s why I believe in community. When you have the credibility and community, they show up for you. And they showed up for me and they helped boost a lot of businesses and it was really cool.
Eve: [00:09:40] That’s really fabulous. So, but then there’s a really bigger story here, and that’s what we’re getting into. And that’s the Laundry Cafe’s planned home, because along the way, you met someone planning something much bigger for Black businesses. So, where is the Laundry Cafe going to be located and what’s it called? Tell me about it.
Tosha: [00:10:02] So, the Laundry Cafe will be inside a bigger facility called The Aux. And we met Laurie Lazar and Julie Kaufman. And when I say we, it was myself and a couple of friends. We were sitting in a restaurant, and I promise you, I don’t know these women from anyone else in the world. We’re just sitting there. I’m eating, I’m about to put a sandwich in my mouth and someone says, oh, that’s Tosha Wilson and that’s Tiffini Holmes, who’s another co-developer with the Aux, and we’d like to introduce you and then go, Wait, did someone tell you about us this morning? And sure enough, someone had called me earlier that day to say, I want to introduce you to Laurie and Julie. And I said, okay, you know, whatever, whenever. 11 hours later, we just kind of literally physically bumped into each other. And we have not been apart in the last two years. And along the way we came up with the Aux, which is short for the Auxiliary Chord. And that’s why you have this little thing here.
Eve: [00:11:06] She’s got a, we’re not going to do a video. But Tasha is wearing a t-shirt with a nice logo.
Tosha: [00:11:14] The logo with the Aux cord.
Eve: [00:11:16] Yes.
Tosha: [00:11:17] Because we, as people, have to plug in, you have to plug back into each other, plug back into just connecting. And that’s kind of like the symbolism of the Aux cord and what it always has done for us before Bluetooth and all we always had to plug in.
Eve: [00:11:32] Yes, it’s true. So, the Aux cord. So, what are you planning? This group of people who are now, who now got together two years ago?
Tosha: [00:11:41] Well, what we’re planning is a business hub for healing, wellness and racial equity. So, we’re using real estate. We have purchased a building that will be located in Evanston, Illinois, and that building will help us empower our community. So, through equity sharing, they will now, soon to be owners in what we’re building. We don’t want to just build this and kind of disappear, but we want people to know that if you have shares in this, if you have equity in this now, you want it to succeed. You want to come there, you want to wash clothes there, there’s a workout facility and Wellbeing Chicago. You can get culinary classes from Chef Q’s kitchen, get your hair done and embrace your crown, wash your clothes at the Laundry Cafe, do yoga with the Growing Season, go to a business class with Sunshine Enterprises. So, we have created a circle of things that people can come enjoy and we will have pop up shop. So hey, if you’re that person who just cannot afford the brick and mortar right now, you know, we’re going to provide a safe space for the community to come and buy your products and build your confidence and show you how great you are. And that’s our plan.
Eve: [00:12:58] That’s the big audacious plan. And the building is a warehouse, right? A vacant warehouse that you’ll be converting.
Tosha: [00:13:05] Yes. It was a stinky vegetable cleaning factory. So, when you go in there, you’ll still get hit with that smell. Thank God they’re starting some moves in there. But they used to clean potatoes. And, you know, anything you can think of that went out to the local restaurants, but they needed more space. So, they outgrew this 16,500 square foot building. And it was sitting there for a few years. People tried to buy it. It’s really oddly designed in a very odd space. We’re going to call it the Hidden Gem, because you have to look for it. But we walked in, and I want you to know, we ignored this building for quite some time. We had a previous building, but we don’t know what really happened. But we were going to make a deal. And then we went into the building and shortly thereafter the owner says, I don’t want to sell it to you.
Eve: [00:13:58] Oh.
Tosha: [00:13:59] And real estate in this capacity is very hard to find. So, we were really shook by that and we had to kind of get back on board and find somewhere else. And that’s how we landed in this facility.
Eve: [00:14:11] So, this stinky warehouse. Walk me through the spaces that you’re going to create, because you’re going to have to really rip the guts out of it and start over, right?
Tosha: [00:14:21] Yeah. So, we’re going to rip some guts for sure. We’re going to take some things and rearrange it. But overall, we have a laundromat, which will be us. You can get your hair done at Embrace Your Crown. There’s the Small Business Academy, Sunshine Enterprises, which I am a graduate of, my partner, Jackie, is a graduate of. The other co-developer, Tiffini Holmes, is a graduate and instructor at Sunshine Enterprises. We just created a great deal between Sunshine Enterprises, Northwestern University and the City of Evanston to make sure we have that incubation space that is supported by strong entities. Chef Q is a CNN hero. She fed so many people during the pandemic and CNN recognized her. And she’ll be in her kitchen, in her commercial kitchen in the back of the building. And she also has the hidden dinner.
Eve: [00:15:22] Oh, yeah. The private, little private dinner pop up.
Tosha: [00:15:25] I went in, and it was fantastic. The Growing Season, which is our fiscal agent for the Aux right now, and that is with Laurie Lazar. And she is about meditation and mindfulness and all the great things that just bring you back to a space of relaxation. And then there’s Wellbeing Chicago, where they will have clinicians for mental illness, therapy for self-esteem, working out, anything you can think of that completes the whole being, Wellbeing Chicago is focused on that. And so, and then we have pop up spaces for.
Eve: [00:16:08] For other businesses.
Tosha: [00:16:10] Yeah absolutely.
Eve: [00:16:11] And what about office space? Do you have co-working spaces as well?
Tosha: [00:16:15] Absolutely.
Eve: [00:16:15] So it’s really a complete business center and are all the businesses are going to be Black owned? Is that the goal?
Tosha: [00:16:23] That is the goal. But we’re also understanding of demographics, how demographics change. Being aware of what’s changing in Evanston, we’re totally aware of that. I think our upbringing in Evanston showed us that type of realization 70 years ago. So, our focus is intentional. I’m learning in this process that sometimes it feels odd to say that your focus is Black intended, and I never thought that that would be like a subject matter that I was kind of stuck on because I’ve gone to Hispanic communities where there’s a strong community presence and you love it. You want to be there; you want to eat their food and buy their products. You know, in Chicago, you can go to any neighborhood and it’s a strong base. And then as we’re trying to create this base, people say, well, are you going to have other cultures in there? And then you want to say, Yes, of course. But our intention is, you know, Black-owned businesses. Yeah, absolutely.
Eve: [00:17:30] Yeah, I understand that. It sounds like you love diversity, but really the point of this is to support Black-owned businesses that don’t get it, that don’t get a chance in other ways. Right.
Tosha: [00:17:42] I mean, when do you stop and are you able to say, you know, I’m going to go over to this neighborhood where I know there’s a strong Black presence where I can get the food and the culture, and I don’t know a place.
Eve: [00:17:53] Or even just support a Black owned business, right?
Tosha: [00:17:56] Yeah, I don’t know a place. Yeah. So, it’s important.
Eve: [00:17:59] That’s great. So, what’s the team? Who’s the team doing this?
Tosha: [00:18:04] Oh, the team. Oh, our lovely team. So, The Aux team is myself, Tiffini Holmes, Jacqueline White, Gabori Partee, Lori Laser, we’re the co developers and we have a great support system and Juli Kaufmann from Fix Development out of Milwaukee and her partner Jessie Tobin, who’s also with Fix Development and she’s actually from Evanston. So, the weird thing is, we didn’t know Jessie and then once we met, we’re like, hey, did you go to school with us? You know, sort of thing. So, it was great. So, that’s our team.
Eve: [00:18:40] They really are pretty amazing, Fix Development. I’ve worked with a lot of developers and they’re pretty extraordinary.
Tosha: [00:18:47] Yes.
Eve: [00:18:47] So, the really interesting thing to me is the financing structure, which I’d love to talk to you about, because, as you know, we have a crowdfunding platform. And what I’ve been seeing over the last year is more and more developers coming to us playing with this idea of community ownership. And I would say the Aux is the first one that really, really gets at it in a wholehearted way. So, tell us about how this $8 Million project is going to be financed.
Tosha: [00:19:19] Well, due to inflation, it went from 6 to 8.
Eve: [00:19:22] Yeah, that’s…
Tosha: [00:19:23] Same structure. So, we used community-based funds, meaning like state, federal, city backing. So, we got $1,000,000 from the city of Evanston, $1.5 million from the state of Illinois.
Eve: [00:19:38] These are grants, right? They’re not loans they’re grants.
Tosha: [00:19:40] Absolutely. We are not interested in loans.
Eve: [00:19:43] These must be around job creation, these grants, right?
Tosha: [00:19:46] Yes. Yes, absolutely. So, there were ARPA funds. There were things to get the base of business back going. So, that was pretty much our angle and saying that a lot of Black businesses lost during COVID and we need to rebuild and be strong. We’re raising money by using state, federal and city funding. So, we have received funds from that. Then we’ve also had strong backing with philanthropic donors who support this project and move forward. And then we also have a section where we’re going to use crowdfunding for equity ownership in the building, and all three of those had to be strong. So far, we’ve raised a nice chunk of change from our overall 8 million and we’re very proud of our endeavor because in last year around this time we were like, what are we doing? And in that 365 days we worked pretty hard and we’re doing very well, and we think we can pull it together in this last stretch of equity ownership and additional philanthropic funds and the state and city, they’re still supporting us.
Eve: [00:21:01] That’s fantastic. So, my understanding is that anyone who invests is going to have a vote in the management of the building, and those investors will eventually own the building 100% so the philanthropy and those donors and the state and the feds won’t have any ownership say. So, you’re going to be a self-managed self-owned really community owned project which is astounding.
Tosha: [00:21:32] That is correct. That is correct. Thank you.
Eve: [00:21:35] It’s really pretty fabulous. And where are you in, like, building. And I mean, what’s the plan? The timeline.
Tosha: [00:21:43] Well, actually, later today, of all things, we’re meeting with the architects for our final final. We always get that email that says final, drawings and moving on to the construction. So, once we get the permits going with the city. and that’s always a challenge…
Eve: [00:22:03] Always difficult, yeah.
Tosha: [00:22:04] Yeah, anyone who knows, and the city of Evanston is very diligent in how they make sure whether it’s curb cuts to where this tree is going to be planted. They are very diligent, which makes the city beautiful. But that is our next phase in just getting the process going. They’ve been testing the roof and the sewers and everything and we are done with that and we’re so happy.
Eve: [00:22:28] That’s pretty fabulous. So, what’s the goal for groundbreaking and what’s the goal for opening the doors and moving in and for quitting your job?
Tosha: [00:22:40] That’s an even longer story. We’re quitting the job, like groundbreaking we’re looking for the end of this year. So, end of this month into November, we plan on having the groundbreaking. Our goal is to open a year from now around Thanksgiving-ish time. We know it’s kind of probably hard to open during cold winters in Chicago and the Chicagoland area, but that is our goal right now, hoping that permits go through smoothly and we can get the process going.
Tosha: [00:23:13] It would be great to have a Christmas like opening festival. Wouldn’t it be fabulous?
Tosha: [00:23:18] That kind of would be cool. That would be nice.
Eve: [00:23:20] What’s your ultimate goal with this building and is it the last one this group will build or are you already thinking ahead?
Tosha: [00:23:29] We thank the process for making us co-developers, we’ve learned a lot. And do I think I could do this again to my partners? When you’re in the middle of it, you’re like, absolutely not. But I think when we see these doors open, the people happy, businesses thriving, community, they’re laughing, engaged, supportive. I feel like, yes, we could do it again and Fix Development has given us a great blueprint for that. Things that we can fix, things that we can make better, things that we’ll do just the same. So, I do think our overall goal is to win, you know, just win, and let kids see that. I know a place, you know what I mean? I know a place. We went to Sherman, Phoenix, which is one of Fix Development’s projects in Milwaukee, and that’s the old BMO Bank that was burned down and, after a police officer shot a young black man and there was a lot of protesting and civil unrest. And after this building burns down, they recreate this building.
Tosha: [00:24:33] And I walked in, Eve, and I could not believe what I saw. And I’m from, you know, a city that claims to be the most progressive city in America. And when I walked into this place, I had never seen anything like it. Where Black businesses were everywhere. And it was love. It was, I don’t, every face imaginable was sitting down and just being one. The police officers are sitting down eating. You know, there are police stations across the street. So, they came over to get coffee. You know, they are doing it right in Milwaukee at the Sherman Phoenix. And why can’t we do that the same way? Why does it have to be something I’ve never seen before? Why does it have to be something you’ve never seen before? So, we want to make it normal. Our goal is to say places like the Aux and the Sherman Phoenix are, you know, it’s like the other businesses in the world. We’re just business and good business.
Eve: [00:25:32] I love the idea of making it normal. I think that’s…
Tosha: [00:25:35] Yeah, I want to make it normal.
Eve: [00:25:36] …really, what we’re aiming for.
Tosha: [00:25:37] That’s our goal.
Eve: [00:25:38] I can’t wait to see it. I hope I get invited to the opening.
Tosha: [00:25:41] Oh, God, yes, you will be there.
Eve: [00:25:45] And good luck with your fundraising. It’s a really fabulous project and I’m excited we’re hosting it.
Tosha: [00:25:52] Thank you.
Eve: [00:25:53] Thanks so much.
Tosha: [00:25:53] We’re thankful. So thankful.
Eve: [00:26:02] I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. You can support this podcast by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media or leaving a rating and review. To catch all the latest from me you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing yourself head on over to wefunder.com/smallchange, where you can invest directly in Small Change and our mission to democratize capital formation to create impact in commercial real estate development. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music, and a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Tosha Wilson