When MORTAR Cincinnati opened its first location in 2014, Executive Director Allen Woods recalls Cincinnati being listed among the cities with the highest income disparity and social inequity among Black residents. Fortunately, Woods and cofounders Derrick Braziel and William Thomas II saw these obstacles as growth opportunities. Five years later, Essence Magazine called Cincinnati the fastest growing economic hub in the Midwest and MORTAR’s entrepreneurship academy helped make this happen. “People are craving the grassroots movement of entrepreneurship in general,” Woods says.
To date, MORTAR’s business development academy has graduated 300 students, many of whom have businesses that not only provide services, but also pathways to sustainable community wealth.
“We created our own culturally competent curriculum and licensed that to other organizations,” Woods explains. “We are working in eight different cities and that gives us the ability to increase the footprint and create ecosystems that are equitable and favorable to Black and brown entrepreneurs.”
In April, MORTAR partnered with Kroger and P&G to support business-to-business entrepreneurs from historically marginalized communities. Woods says they “remixed” their rigorous 15-week program into an eight-week virtual program where the two industry titans provide facilitators and funding to expand MORTAR’s nationally acclaimed Entrepreneurship Academy. Participant entrepreneurs benefitted directly from engagement with senior leaders with backgrounds in brand development, social media marketing, sales, and distribution. The first cohort graduates next month.
“Economic inclusion is a critical building block for our community and country,” says Pat Cady, senior vice president at P&G. “Our leaders are excited to share their unique experiences and skills with these entrepreneurs. We are thrilled to combine resources with MORTAR and Kroger to be a force for good in our community.”
“Our ‘Framework for Action: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion’ plan was developed to harness Kroger’s collective energy to advance racial equality in our culture and our communities,” says Angel Colón, Kroger’s senior director of Corporate and Supplier Diversity.
Erikka Gray and Brandon Z Hoff both started working for themselves full-time in 2019. Gray’s passion is helping brands develop scent identities and she developed a signature fragrance for ArtsWave’s Power of HER campaign. “Scent connects us to fond memories, and can set the mood for self-care and relaxation,” says Gray, who owns District 78 on Short Vine, a new retailer offering tranquility aids like plants and hand-poured scented candles. Gray’s store is one of four inside the recently opened holistic space, PAUSE Cincy, and all are owned by MORTAR alumni.
After being laid off, Hoff designed and manufactured collegiate spirit wear inspired by the colors of the Pan African flag—red, black, and green. When his mother asked what he wanted to do, he said, “make my ancestors proud,” which became the tagline for his Blue Ash–based company Heritage Hill. Hoff says he hopes to learn strategies for building capacity and scale.
Instead of using a “one size fits all” approach seeking candidates with business degrees, Woods says MORTAR seeks individuals with tenacity, a fresh approach, and an interest in leaving behind legacies.
One of MORTAR’s first graduates was Means Cameron, who came to the program with his apparel line, BlaCk OWned Outerwear. “[Cameron] understood that there was more to learn after college,” Woods explains. “Entrepreneurship is very different than what you would learn with a traditional business degree.”
Cameron, who also owns BlaCk Coffee Lounge downtown, now has apparel partnerships with FC Cincinnati and the Bengals, and it’s not uncommon to see hip hop celebrities sporting BlaCK OWned in music videos. Citing the successes of graduates like Cameron, Woods compares Cincinnati’s economic potential to Tulsa prior to the 1921 massacre that decimated an entire Black community.
“When I think about the possibilities of Cincinnati becoming a variation of what was built on ‘Black Wall Street,’ that’s not an unrealistic possibility,” he adds. “I think we have the tools, insight, and brilliance to do something like that. Hopefully, we can make some of the changes that need to be made to position Cincinnati as [a place where] we can say, ‘This is a city you want to go to if you are a Black business,’ but it’s going to take more than MORTAR.”