When Allen Woods, Derrick Braziel and William Thomas II founded MORTAR in 2014, they were, in some ways, growing lock-step with a city trying to find its own footing in the entrepreneurial landscape.
Outsiders looking in at MORTAR’s mission — to empower underserved populations and communities through entrepreneurship — didn’t always quite get it at first. But things have changed since then in a major way: MORTAR is now one of Greater Cincinnati’s most celebrated resources for business incubation and entrepreneurial support. To date, the group has produced nine graduating cohorts, largely made up of minority and women entrepreneurs. (The tenth and eleventh cohorts will compete at Pitch Night Aug. 30. Click here for more details.) Relying on its deep entrepreneurial network, MORTAR has connected startups to thousands of dollars in seed funding in addition to providing a wealth of legal and financial services and other business support.
This month, Soapbox sat down with MORTAR Woods to talk about faith, perseverance in the face of adversity and the ways in which Cincinnati’s entrepreneurial scene beats those of much larger markets like Chicago and NYC. Click here to watch Woods's recent "OUTLIERS" TEDx talk.
1. What's your next big move?
In between an extremely busy travel schedule, I was somehow able to develop and launch BRICK Haus, a brand-new retail shop experience that will combine the fresh approach of BRICK Pop Up Shops with a storefront boutique that sells products that entrepreneurs from our MORTAR alumni groups have created. The space, which shares a home in Walnut Hills with (local nonprofit documentarians) Cincy Stories, also serves as the flagship store of Ohio Against The World. I'm loving setting up these spaces. They serve as entrepreneurial laboratories where people can test out their concepts. I would love to develop more of these around the city and throughout the nation.
2. What's been your biggest setback?
Honestly, the one thing that has been a setback for us is convincing some potential funders to see the value in the work that we're doing in communities. While there have been some amazing foundations that really understand what we're doing and have a heart for the people, there are others that don't look at what we do in the same way that they view million-dollar tech companies. Though it's a fact that most of our companies aren't high-growth, they are instead deep-impact, and these businesses change the complexion of entrepreneurship and are changing lives and livelihoods.
3. What's been your luckiest break?
I don't really believe in luck. I do, however, believe that MORTAR has definitely been blessed with tons of connections, resources and opportunities in the past three years. What we do is purpose work and God has rewarded us for using our gifts to help others. I think that's what it all comes back to — MORTAR is here to help others live their best lives, and entrepreneurship is how we're getting them there.
4. Why is Cincy the right city?
Cincinnati is the right city because we get the benefit of not having the pressures that come along with being a Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. In those huge markets, there's an expectation that they'll lead the way when it comes to food, art and innovation. When people across the country think of Cincinnati, they aren't sure exactly where we stand, so it gives us an ability to develop our own identity with plenty of room for growth.
5. Give a shout out to 3 people doing good work.
First, I'd have to say my wife, Kyla Woods. She's done an amazing job of transitioning from an on-air personality at WLWT News 5 to starting her own company, Crowd or Camera Communications Consulting. She's moved from being in front of the camera to teaching people how to present themselves in their best light, whether they're in front of a crowd or a camera.
Second, I'd say professor Lew Goldfarb from UC. There, he leads the law school and works in tandem with law students to prepare them for life after college by connecting them with internships throughout the entrepreneurial ecosystem. MORTAR and our alumni have benefited from these interns and from having Goldfarb as an essential part of our board of directors.
Lastly, Richard Palmer from Nehemiah Manufacturing. I've had some great conversations with Richard and I love that Nehemiah works to provide jobs for those who are returning home from incarceration and those who may not typically be able to find employment. MORTAR is working with a lot of people with these same backgrounds who are chasing entrepreneurship, so I really feel connected to the Nehemiah mission.