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A tech hub, an app, a teenage breakfast shop: Here's how we'll keep talent in Cincinnati

Lawrence Jones (left) created Just Hire Me to connect teens with jobs and professional skills.

MORTAR co-founder Allen Woods believes Cincy must do a better job of cultivating good talent to prevent creative flight.

Jones is a MORTAR graduate who feels Cincy could do more to cultivate and retain local tech talent.

Jones presents Just Hire Me app to a group of prospective users.


Retaining local talent — whether entrepreneurial, artistic, educational or otherwise — can be difficult. Whether young creatives leave for personal ambitions or job opportunities, or simply a desire to try something new, that flight has long been a challenge for Cincinnati’s workforce.

But as a growing Midwestern bastion for tech and entrepreneurial talent, Cincinnati leaders are learning how to cultivate and retain the talented people we have, no matter how long they’ve lived in the city. Talent retention is especially pressing in the tech sector, where a plethora of incubator programs and accelerators are fostering a large and ambitious talent pool.

Just ask Allen Woods, who helped found local tech accelerator MORTAR to build on diverse entrepreneurial talent.

“There are a lot of people who come (to Cincinnati) for these incubators and they have a great time while they’re here, but their roots weren’t deep enough, or they weren’t tied enough to something that was here to keep them here,” Woods says. “Some people just want to go back home — and you can’t be mad at that either.”

Building an ecosystem where people want to be

IN 2015, MORTAR began offering nine-week courses for aspiring entrepreneurs. It recently graduated its fourth class, and Woods says the goal is to create an inclusive and friendly ecosystem especially for non-tech entrepreneurs, many of whom work for specific social causes and lifestyle businesses.

“We’re working to add on to that environment, that ecosystem, but the population we’re working with is super diverse,” he says. “A lot of people, once they go through our program, do want to figure out ways to involve tech, or have their business become tech-enabled. We’re kind of ushering people into the ecosystem and introducing the possibility.”

Seventy percent of MORTAR graduates are women and 90 percent are African American.

“If you look at the tech sector in Cincinnati and elsewhere, those numbers aren’t represented,” Woods says. “That’s one of the reasons we feel like it’s important to be a part of the overall ecosystem as a point of differentiation and diversity.”

Woods believes that nurturing a welcoming ecosystem is especially important for keeping non-native Cincinnatians here after they finish MORTAR's (or any other) program.

“Sometimes it can feel like it’s difficult to find your place within Cincinnati if you’re not from here,” he says. “(Many conversations start) with the question, ‘What high school did you go to?’ — which often feels like an attempt to figure out which bucket you want to put people in.”

Woods moved to Cincinnati from Indianapolis five years ago and began working as a freelance graphic designer before co-founding MORTAR. He sees people coming from other cities who are able to offer different points of view, whether entrepreneurially, culturally or socially.

“I think that’s one of the things that people don’t recognize,” he says. “When you come from another city, you are actually bringing an entirely different dynamic and perspective that people have never seen because maybe they’ve been too close.”

Additionally, Woods believes city leaders should encourage and incentivize entrepreneurs to stay. “Some of it comes down to the institution of the city and what is the city doing to not just get people to come to Cincinnati, but get people to stay. Are there programs that they could initiate that keep these startups here?”

Investing in local talent takes all forms

Created by 2017 MORTAR graduate Lawrence Jones, Just Hire Me is a staffing platform that pairs teenagers with jobs, while also helping them develop long-term professional and life skills.

Just Hire Me offers a take on the hyperlocal ambitions Woods describes, in part by specifically focusing on keeping money within the communities where it originates. The platform, which started in North Fairmount, went citywide this year after winning the 2017 Engage Cincy community-building grant.

Graphic shows Just Hire Me's unique approach to job creation.To request a worker, businesses or individuals go to the Just Hire Me website or app, put in a job request and basic information: date, time, how many hours the job will require, number of workers required and a description of the job. After the request is submitted, the app sends an alert to any workers within a one-mile radius of the job location.

“The goal, in essence, is to keep the money within the community,” says Jones. “The thing about impoverished communities, there aren’t many businesses, so money always leaves the community.”

Jobs range from mowing a lawn to cleaning a house, washing windows or administrative work like data entry. If no one responds to the initial request, the alert radius expands to five miles. The main goal is to find employment for any interested teens in the neighborhood.

“We outsource jobs through businesses, neighbors, neighborhood groups, community groups — anyone that either has a job applicable to kids ages 14-18, or anyone who is willing to create a job,” Jones says. “Whether that’s a menial task or whether that’s administrative work, Just Hire Me tries to place those teens with members in the community who are willing to hire them.”

After the application process, Just Hire Me begins certification and skill-building for its workers.

“That’s one of the most important parts of Just Hire Me. We don’t just send a teen out to a job request unprepared. We try to start building a skill for them. For our certification process, we make sure that they understand workplace professionalism — etiquette, your dress, your language, your manners, eye contact, shaking hands — all those introductory things that mean a lot when you’re working for somebody.”

The process then shifts focus toward teaching résumé-building and basic economics and finance, such as the difference between a personal check and payroll check.

“(Most jobs) don’t talk to the teens about financial literacy — about saving and paying themselves,” Jones says. “We try to prepare you as you get a job, we want to make sure you are financially literate to some degree.”

Paying it forward

Jones believes a greater return on investment within the community occurs when people put support behind entrepreneurs who plan on staying in the city. As such, Jones recently began helping a Withrow High School student who came up with the idea for a pop-up breakfast shop.

The business, tentatively called Hersch Pack — a play on the student’s name and Withrow’s mascot — will sell breakfast at the high school and is slated to open this month. They hope to eventually expand the idea to other schools located in food deserts.

“We were looking at how we could solve this problem,” Jones says. “One way was by having a mini pop-up shop for students once they get off the bus because there’s no time to go anywhere else.”

Jones is helping a 16-year-old Withrow student create a breakfast pop-up shop for fellow students.The 16-year-old student would work Hersch Pack for about an hour in the morning, and if all goes well, eventually extend to after-school hours.

“The young man has talked about saving some money for college, and then creating a scholarship through the pop-up shop for his school — something that could be longstanding even after he graduates,” Jones says.

Hersch Pack plans to sell fresh fruit, muffins and donuts, among other things — items students can pick up quickly on their way to class.

Connecting back to the ecosystem

No matter what city you’re from, whether you’re a native or transplant, building a community is about investing in the people that want to be a part of it — striving to improve yourself and those around you, being more inclusive and aware of your peers. A community’s actions are connected: from MORTAR to Just Hire Me to Hersch Pack to Withrow High School.

“I think it has to be a part of the DNA of every community and city, to make sure you’re empowering the entrepreneurs,” Woods says. “If these entrepreneurs start companies that are growing, growing the economy and hiring within the neighborhood, you have job creation and a lot of other things that are built into that.”

Woods believes great ideas are everywhere and people are ready to do the work. Sometimes it just takes a little support to bring them into fruition.

Jones agrees and echoes that sentiment: “I already knew what I wanted to do. I just needed the extra help.”

Read more articles by Kyle Stone.

Kyle is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati. When he isn't writing, he's making music, riding his bike and taking photos of his adventures.
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