How Ricardo Grant Became a Boss

From starting businesses to hosting art shows, Ricardo Grant has embraced the value of reaching out and making connections. He lives by a favorite childhood saying: ”Closed mouths don’t get fed.”

Illustration by Rafa Alvarez

On a particularly overcast springtime Sunday, Grant is reflective while taking a rare day off. He’s gotten better at self-care thanks to audiobooks and running. “I don’t have a whole lot of time to sit down and read, so I think it’s important for me to find ways to take care of myself while I’m on the go,” he says, mentioning how he’s listened to Will Smith’s memoir, Will, twice. “The book is filled with stories of resilience and grace. I certainly relate to his relationship with his tough father and his siblings, and the way he chased his wild and out-of-the-box dreams with sometimes very little support.”

One of Grant’s recent wild hairs popped out shortly after the pandemic arrived in 2020, when he decided to take up running. “It’s not only good for my body physically,” he says, “but it’s the one point of the day specifically when I’m able to disconnect from devices.”

Grant, known to most as Rico, might be one of Cincinnati’s best-connected people. He owns a barbershop that doubles as an art gallery, but he isn’t a stylist or a museum curator. He doesn’t have a background in hospitality either, but he recently opened a new bar and lounge concept in Over-the-Rhine. His fluffy, salt-and-pepper beard and relaxed but fashion-forward uniform of limited-edition sneakers and fitted baseball caps represent today’s young professional: a trendsetting lifestyle influencer rather than the traditional suit-and-tie-with-a-briefcase look.

Much of what Grant, 37, admires and carries into his business models is inspired by growing up in the 1990s, an era he lovingly refers to as a “golden age” of Black popular culture and creativity. His career path has been one leap of faith after another, especially once he embraced entrepreneurship after more than 10 years in corporate America.

Grant and business partner Ray Ball cofounded Paloozanoire in 2019, a nonprofit company focused on enriching the lives of people of color in areas of entrepreneurship, corporate leadership, and creativity. They organized a Juneteenth Block Party at The Banks, and this year’s version drew more than 10,000 partygoers. They’ve also presented two Black & Brown Faces art exhibitions at the Cincinnati Art Museum in partnership with ArtsWave.

Grant worked with organizations like Duke Energy, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, the Cincinnati Reds, FC Cincinnati, and the University of Cincinnati to launch the 17 Under Seventeen Awards, which present $5,000 scholarships for extraordinary young leaders. He’s also the founder and executive director of SoCap Accelerate, a healthcare startup program based at Northern Kentucky University’s Institute for Health Innovation and backed by Mercy Health and St. Elizabeth Healthcare. His nonprofit, Fundnoire, hopes to raise $1.5 million worth of seed funding by the end of this year to award grants to 25 local Black-owned businesses; The Kroger Co. Foundation and Sycamore Capital have already invested in it.

To most of Cincinnati, though, Grant might be best known as the owner of two unique businesses in Over-the-Rhine: Gallery at Gumbo and Cinema. Both are partnerships with 3CDC.

“Rico knows just about everybody and engages in a lot of different worlds,” says Adam Gelter, 3CDC’s executive vice president of real estate. “We met through mutual friends, and one day he reached out and asked if I was interested in talking about an idea for a space. I said, Of course.

Gallery at Gumbo is a cultural barbershop on Main Street that also serves as an art gallery showcasing a rotation of local Black artists, who receive 100 percent of the profits from their commissioned pieces. Grant films a conversation series, Gumbo Talks, at the shop, hosting spirited discussions with a diverse, gumbo-like guest roster of athletes, recording artists, and business executives—even Mayor Aftab Pureval. Recent debates included choosing who’s had the better careers, Al Pacino vs. Robert DeNiro and Muhammad Ali vs. Mike Tyson.

Rico Grant hosts “Gumbo Talks” on YouTube. This episode featured (from left) Drew Biddle, co-founder of Sweet Mae’s Cookie Co.; Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen; Tiffany Biddle, co-founder and CEO of Sweet Mae’s Cookie Co.; and Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval.

Photograph courtesy Shot by Dubs

“I’m not a barber,” Grant says at the shop. “I’m not an artist. I’m a curator. And I’m not an art curator. I’m a community curator. I enjoy bringing people together. Obviously, the pandemic made that almost impossible, but I’m looking at the path forward.”

Grant envisioned Cinema as a bar and lounge that would use Black films, art, and music as a throwback aesthetic, and he spent months renovating a historic building at 1517 Vine Street into a modern, real-world version of Ray’s Boom-Boom Room, the nightclub Eddie Murphy’s incarcerated character imagines in Life. He leaned on Gelter’s and others’ expertise when it came to construction and design, a process he says involved “a lot of hand-holding” while trying to turn a gutted building into what he hopes will become a popular nightlife destination. It officially opened in August.

A few months out from the opening, Grant shared a post on social media saying, “This building, it’s an eyesore right now, but it’s gonna be beautiful. I’m so grateful for the process because I’m learning so much.”

Paloozanoire has produced two “Black & Brown Faces” exhibitions at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Photograph courtesy Paloozanoire

In the pandemic’s early months, Grant and his Paloozanoire team produced the Black & Brown Faces art exhibition as a free attraction at the Cincinnati Art Museum. It depicted the highs and lows of 2020 and was intended to initiate a healing conversation. A second installment ran at CAM from March through June of this year, celebrating some of the city’s sung and unsung leaders through work by 15 artists from across the Midwest. The exhibition included many 2D and 3D pieces, including the iconic rattan peacock chair often seen in 1960s and ’70s photographs of African Americans like Black Panthers leader Huey P. Newton.

Though the 2022 exhibition received widespread acclaim, a painting by Columbus-based Black queer artist Magnus Juliano drew anger from some Cincinnati Police leaders because of its depiction of Piglet dressed as an officer who shoots Winnie the Pooh, with Tigger holding a sign that reads, “Off the Pig.” Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police President Dan Hils requested that the art museum take down the painting. “Any conversation that [the painting] starts is a divisive conversation,” he told Newsweek. “It serves no other purpose.”

Days before Hils’s request, public focus turned to the mass shooting of 10 Black people at Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, followed by the massacre in Uvalde, Texas, that took 21 lives, including 19 children. Paloozanoire released a statement on its Instagram page to acknowledge the tragedies without addressing the painting controversy.

“While our nation reflects on the collective trauma we are all experiencing, it’s important to for us to pause and ask ourselves what matters most,” the statement read. “What matters most to us is the love we have for our city. Our mission has been and continues to be to create safe and inclusive spaces for all, while encouraging meaningful dialogue about the realities African Americans face each day.… In the spirit of collective healing let’s continue healthy dialogue in Cincinnati, the city we all love.”

The Cincinnati Art Museum did not remove Juliano’s work. Its own statement concluded, “We believe that free expression is foundational in dialogues and community partnerships.”

Grant says he wouldn’t have tackled these community projects if he didn’t have a strong team helping him. Creating businesses—and employment opportunities— was a happy accident of his drive to succeed.

“I have an army, and they allow me to do what I’m really good at, which is remain a visionary and seek out new opportunities for us to grow,” he says. “I’ve gotten really good at working with people who are smarter than me in specific areas. That’s the reality. One of the rewarding things I never anticipated is being able to provide good employment for, specifically, some of the top Black talent in the city who—without the opportunity to work with Paloozanoire or Cinema OTR or anything I’m a part of—otherwise might leave Cincinnati because they don’t want to necessarily sit behind a desk.”

Grant started seeking ways to build community and create a more livable environment for others at an early age, says his youngest brother, Justice Grant, who is 27. “He understood that we’re not taught everything important in school,” says Justice. “Rico always had the vision, and he was like a researcher. He was a kid who, if he figured something out, he’d sit at the computer for hours or in a book for hours and continue learning. He used to make me drop the dictionary every morning and, wherever it opened, learn that word.”

Justice, who cofounded the Gallery at Gumbo with Rico and owns his own trucking company, describes his brother as industrious and generous. “When he wanted to volunteer at homeless shelters,” Justice recalls, “I was like, Uhh, I want to play outside! He started a lawn care service at 16 for the elderly, which was basically going around cutting grass for free. He’s always been into sponsoring things where he doesn’t have to charge a fee; he would rather get the money from somewhere else, from an investor or something, and try to just build up people. When we opened Gallery at Gumbo, he gave the barbers free rent for their first year.”

As a child, Justice remembers Rico standing in as a father-like figure. “I never met my father and Rico was 10 years older than me, so he kind of did everything for me—he’d take me to get my hair cut, he took me to buy my cleats, he made me go to practice, and he made me go to the gym and work out.”

He also remembers a key life lesson he still follows today as a businessman. “I’ll never forget when I was 11 years old, some guy started talking to us in the grocery store,” says Justice. “I was like, I don’t know you! And Rico was like, Don’t talk to him that way. You never know who you could be talking to—it could be a CEO or your next boss. You should always be nice to people. Not long ago, I met a guy at a truck stop who now wants to give me a trucking contract with Amazon just because I was willing to open my mouth and learn.”

Justice remembers wincing whenever his brother said he wanted to start nonprofits, because to a child that sounded like the antithesis of entrepreneurship. “I’d be like, Nonprofits? They don’t make any money!

Rico’s grades weren’t good enough to qualify for college scholarships, so he thought about entering the U.S. Air Force. His uncle suggested it would be better if he worked instead of joining the military, and he helped Rico get a job in the Coca-Cola warehouse working third shift. He didn’t start college until age 22, and he kept his Coca-Cola gig while attending UC.

Some of Grant’s aspirations panned out over the years, and others didn’t. He pursued degrees in criminal justice and African studies at UC, and he’s considered going to law school to study business law. His LSAT scores were decent, but he would have incurred significant student loan debt, so he decided against it.

In 2020, he launched SoCap Accelerate. Founded with the goal of using innovation to address health issues in Kentucky, from drug addiction to heart disease to cancer, the organization is hosting its sixth cohort now and has worked with almost 30 startups total.

Working with Paloozanoire feeds Grant’s creative urges. “If I could do life over, I would put all my energy into becoming a filmmaker,” he says wistfully. Black movies from the 1980s and ’90s are his jam. “There aren’t many Black movies I haven’t seen at least 10 or 15 times.”

He admits that his overwhelming tendency to quote entire film scenes gets on people’s nerves. “I’m the annoying guy on the other end of the couch saying it word for word,” he says, followed by a hearty chuckle at himself. “And you’re like, Bro, can I just watch the movie?

A film quote that best describes Grant as an entrepreneur comes from the 1989 sports fantasy drama, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Like the film’s main char acter, played by Kevin Costner, Grant listens to his inner voice when it urges him to pursue a vision. The next step is sharing the vision with others. Quoting a saying shared often while he was growing up, his reasoning is, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” Being vocal about his vision is how he opened Gallery at Gumbo and launched his other endeavors.

“Black creatives and entrepreneurs and even those in the corporate sector have to speak up and talk about our aspirations and our dreams,” he says.

Grant’s aspirations for Cinema included a vibrant color palette inspired by the iconic Australian Coogi sweater— most notably worn by the late rapper Biggie Smalls—with hues of oranges, blues, yellows, and greens. The design element is intended to evoke the nostalgia and vigor of the ’90s, from the music to the fashion to the artwork. And the significance of its location on Vine Street brings him full circle to growing up a few neighborhoods up the road in Avondale, where his grandmother, Lucy Lewis, lived for more than 60 years until she died recently at age 96.

“As I build the things that I build, I do it from a framework and a mindset of that childhood home,” says Grant. “When I think about acquiring things, I take it from that approach: What type of legacy is it gonna have? I think about that now as a serial entrepreneur who’s building multiple businesses and how I can turn success into significance. My grandparents were able to own their own home in the ’60s, and that helped define their life in that neighborhood.”

Sixty years later, the Lewis home, which provided comfort and respite for generations, is still part of his family’s legacy. “If you failed or if you fell down on your luck for whatever reason, there was space for you in that home,” says Grant. “It was a house for more people than just those with the last name Lewis, which is my grandmother and my dad’s side of the family. That house was a blessing to so many people.”

A young Rico Grant

Photograph courtesy Rico Grant

The house is also where Grant, the eldest of six children, began building his entrepreneurial spirit, following examples from his older cousins and uncles. Growing up in a predominantly Black community felt nurturing, he says, especially being part of the Friars Club baseball team. But his exposure to diversity came from attending schools like Clifton Elementary with students from all races and walks of life, which provided a sense of belonging. “We would go up in the Clifton Gaslight District as boys with our shovels when it snowed and shovel driveways and build up a clientele. We were like 10 or 11 years old and [would] shovel the driveway for $10, make $70 on a day,” Grant recalls. “And then we’d go hit Ludlow Avenue and grab burgers and milkshakes.”

Grant also credits his father for instilling a drive for entrepreneurship in him. Well-known around Avondale as a second-generation union drywall finisher, he took on side contracts with clients like Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, UC, and Xavier University. He’d often meet someone on the job who admired his craftsmanship and hired him to finish a basement or an attic, and Grant saw firsthand that his father was more than a laborer.

“In high school, I would go on the job sites and earn some extra income,” Grant says. “He paid me to do demolition and stuff like that, and I began to see how he was able to curate these teams and bring these people together. He was doing some of the work, but he was really delegating and building a force of individuals to come in and do the painting and the demolition. That’s kind of my first crack into the world of, Oh, this is what it looks like to be a boss. That really appealed to me.”

Grant’s tenacity and spirit inspire others these days, including visual artist Gee Horton, a 2022 Black & Brown Faces honoree. Horton left a corporate career to pursue art full-time in 2020, and he quickly found a kinship with Grant, who helped him shake feelings of imposter syndrome when it comes to being an artist.

“That brother can do anything, honestly,” says Horton. “Whatever he puts his mind to, I think he can make happen. I firmly believe that. Connecting people is just one of his many superpowers. He pulls out the best in people because of the amount of energy, work, and effort he puts into his projects.”

Grant demurs when told how Gee and others describe him as some sort of superhero with special powers. “There are a lot of moving parts with these businesses, yes, but there are lots of passionate people working on it, so I’m not alone,” he says.

He laughs repeating the question he always gets: When do you sleep? “My response is, At night, the same as you do,” he says. “I get my eight hours. I dozed off last night around 10:45 and woke up this morning around 7:30. Same times as everyone else. But in between 7:30 and 10:45, my team and I are running at lightning speed. Now is the time to be unselfish in the service of others.”

A few weeks before Cinema’s grand opening, Grant again revisited Will Smith’s audiobook. Will had continued to be his journey companion. “Imagine if Will would have studied at the University of Wisconsin right out of high school, as he promised his mother he would, and never made [his 1988 hit song] ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand,’ ” he says. “It’s like when I was growing up, your parents push you to get an education because they don’t want you to have to work with your back like they did. They did it in order to put you on a path toward having a better life. So sometimes I wonder What if I had just stayed at my desk job? There’s nothing wrong with that. I would have lived my life and been fine, but Gallery at Gumbo, Cinema, Paloozanoire, and Fundnoire wouldn’t exist. I just really relate to Smith’s ambition of doing things that maybe weren’t popular or weren’t part of everyone else’s plan for him.”

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