The number of resources available to entrepreneurs and start-up companies continues to grow in Cincinnati. In 2014, three friends started an organization focused on serving underserved downtown communities such as Walnut Hills and Over the Rhine. MORTAR fulfills its purpose by “offering non-traditional entrepreneurs the opportunity to use their inherent talents to not just make a dollar, but to positively participate in the rise of Cincinnati.” The organization has created a nine-week entrepreneurship course to help low-income urban entrepreneurs build or expand their dream businesses, giving them the tools to help them grow with their neighborhoods.
In the past year+, MORTAR graduated its first and second classes of entrepreneurs, opened a Brick OTR, a pop-up shop to feature local goods, introduced its third class and initiated a partnership with Xavier. MORTAR has found traction in helping people find their passion and talents, and build a business around them. A quick glance at the organizations partner and news pages, and it’s clear that MORTAR is doing something right. We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Derrick Braziel, Managing Director of MORTAR to learn more about him and his emerging organization.
T.H.E.: What about your background prepared you to launch MORTAR?
Braziel: I’m not sure if anything in my background has sufficiently prepared me for MORTAR. If anything, my background showed me why MORTAR was needed. Both of my parents are first generation college graduates and they both grew up in poverty and I recognize the need for under-resourced entrepreneurs to have opportunities to break the cycle of poverty. This is why MORTAR was born.
T.H.E.: Why Cincinnati, and why now? What makes this the right place and time for MORTAR?
Braziel: Statistically, MORTAR recognizes that entrepreneurs of color struggle in Cincinnati. The Kauffman index ranks Cincinnati 32nd out of 40 in terms of entrepreneurial opportunity and Forbes ranks Cincinnati 50th out of 52 cities in terms of economic opportunity for African-Americans.
About 18% of Cincinnati businesses are African-American, despite representing 43% of the population and 29% are women-owned, despite representing 52% of the population. According to a recent Urban League report, Cincinnati lags behind peer cities with only 6.9 minority-owned businesses per 1,000 residents.
Because of this information I, along with my colleagues, couldn’t wait any longer to try to turn the tide. There’s no better time than now to start programs that enable entrepreneurs from challenged socioeconomic backgrounds to change their lives.
T.H.E.: What have been the biggest challenges for you and MORTAR to this point?
Braziel: The biggest challenge BY FAR has been access to capital, both for our organization as well as for our entrepreneurs. If 80% of your start-up capital comes from friends and family, and the median household income for white households is over eight times higher than African-American households, access to capital is significantly important. As a result, we (along with our entrepreneurs) are bootstrapping and continuing to show indicators of success until we’re able to solicit a long-term investment.
T.H.E.: What types of companies are you looking for to be part of your program?
Braziel: We do not have a specific type of company that we "look for" although most of the businesses in our program would fall under lifestyle businesses. Regardless, we’re starting to see more tech businesses, and we have a plan to integrate tech into our program to support entrepreneurs who wish to become more tech-enabled.
T.H.E.: How do you measure success with the entrepreneurs you are mentoring?
Braziel: We measure success in the following ways:
- # of students who participate in the class
- # of students who graduate from the class
- $’s invested in these businesses
- # of jobs created
- # of new businesses incorporated
T.H.E.: Since you started, what lessons have you learned that have made you a stronger organization? How has MORTAR evolved in your early stages?
Braziel: I think we’ve learned that we can’t do everything on our own, despite our best efforts to. Luckily we’ve been able to cultivate partnerships with a myriad of organizations around the city to provide holistic services that we believe will support the long-term success of the entrepreneurs we serve.
T.H.E: Can you share an example of companies that have participated in your program and have started to experience success?
Braziel: Here are just a few:
T.H.E.: How do you see MORTAR working with other incubators and organizations that are helping small businesses and entrepreneurs?
Braziel: We think it takes a village to raise an entrepreneur. So, we’re working with partners across the region to hopefully connect entrepreneurs in our class to the resources that are available in our local ecosystem. If it’s funding, we train and connect our folks to funders. If it’s legal support, we have a partner there. The system is designed for us to partner with other organizations that have more expertise than us, so we can focus on training and other partners can provide other expertise.
T.H.E.: What do you think Cincinnati and the surrounding region need to do to make small business success a priority?
Braziel: We need more opportunities for non-traditional entrepreneurs. Our current system, unfortunately, is designed to support entrepreneurs who have access, connections, and inherently understand the system. What we want to do is educate people to think of other people who may be entrepreneurs, people who operate in their living room, out of their trunk, etc., and look to provide them with the same opportunities. These people have the same skill-sets as other entrepreneurs they just don’t know what they don’t know. Our goal is to expose our region to these talented folks an hopefully ensure that they are being connected to resources and opportunities.
T.H.E.: What’s next for MORTAR?
Braziel: Eventually, we want other parts of the U.S. to look at MORTAR for expertise in intentional community development. As communities are looking to empower residents to fill storefronts or anything else, we hope that they could look into MORTAR’s approach as a possible solution.
Learn more about MORTAR at www.wearemortar.com.