Cincinnati's Minority Business Accelerator is model for economic inclusion

When Tillie Hidalgo Lima, president and CEO of the concierge firm Best Upon Request, was approached by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber in 2010 to be one of the first Hispanic-owned businesses to participate in the organization’s Minority Business Accelerator (MBA), she immediately saw the value in the partnership.
“I was delighted that we were selected,” says Lima, who took over Best Upon Request from her husband, Dave, in 2003. “What I found right away was that they had a real interest in understanding our business and our processes.”

With networking opportunities, educational events and better access to area business leaders, Lima notes that it was clear to her early on that the MBA and its backers were personally committed to minority-owned companies’ success.
And since 2003, that commitment has helped further the development and sustainability of businesses owned by African-Americans and Latinos and advanced their economic impact on Greater Cincinnati.
“Investments in companies translate into investments into the community,” says Crystal German, vice president of the Minority Business Accelerator and economic inclusion at the chamber. “Minority firms tend to hire local and care about local issues that affect the daily lives of their employees.”
Now, other chambers of commerce across the country have taken note of the MBA’s successes. From Seattle to Greenville, S.C., eight chambers of commerce have contacted the Cincinnati MBA to learn how to build a model for economic inclusion that keeps money in their communities.
“Chambers nationwide spend their energies making their respective communities vibrant and healthy places to start and grow a business,” German adds. “We often look to each other for best practices and innovative approaches to moving the economic needle.”
Moving the Needle, One Business at a Time
Still reeling from the civil unrest of 2001, the civic leaders began trying to come up with ways to reduce economic disparity in the city. On a recommendation from the Cincinnati Community Action Now Commission, the MBA was born.

For David Kroeger, president of Pep, a project-management firm for promotional marketing campaigns, the access to other “minority business enterprises” or MBEs—the official term for companies that are owned and operated by minorities by at least 51 percent—has been invaluable.
“Joining has allowed us to continue to meet diverse suppliers and expand our supplier base,” says Kroeger, whose firm joined the MBA in 2009. “The MBA has the resources to connect us with contacts from companies looking to utilize MBEs and with local MBEs who can serve as supplier partners.”
Over the last 10 years, the initiative has made great strides in changing the landscape in Cincinnati to embrace and support economic inclusion. In 2012, more than $771 million was spent by local corporations and minority-owned companies with other minority-owned companies—money that might have been spent outside of the Greater Cincinnati community if not for the MBA’s work.

Currently, there are 35 firms in the MBA’s portfolio, more than 80 percent of which have committed to spending with other regional minority-owned businesses.
“This type of capital investment and the resulting job creation gets chambers excited about the potential of replicating the model in their own communities,” German says.  
According to Nika White, vice-president of diversity and inclusion for the Greenville Chamber in Greenville, S.C., her work has been driven by the success rate of the Cincinnati program.
Her role was created with the express purpose of managing the Greenville MBA, and in the pre-launch phase of the initiative, she worked closely with the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber to set up the program’s structure. She traveled to Cincinnati several times over the last six to eight months to meet face to face with German and her team.
“Crystal has really been a great support. We’ve had the benefit of tweaking and doing things slightly differently because of what [Cincinnati] went through,” White says. “It’s all about sharing.”
Seventeen minority-owned businesses—which cover a number of industries, including healthcare, construction and facilities management—were vetted and will attend the Greenville MBA’s kickoff session this month before shifting into high gear for 2014. Lexington, Ky. started a similar program this past June, and Charlotte, N.C. launched its Charlotte Minority Economic Development Initiative in 2011.  

Greenville’s participants will meet quarterly to share best practices and attend networking events with other local business leaders and have access to what White calls “capacity-building” opportunities. “We want to make sure that the conditions are right for them to be successful when the opportunity presents itself,” she adds.
While the programs in Greenville, Charlotte and Lexington may be similar to Cincinnati’s, White says the way each is executed is different. For her city, the amount of money a company has to bring in annually in order to participate in the program is lower than that of Cincinnati’s because “we don’t have as deep and rich a minority business landscape.”
“There’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario,” she notes. “The market is going to drive and inform what you offer, and how you're going to offer it.”
Earlier this year, Cincinnati’s MBA started the L. Ross Love GrowthBridge Fund, an initiative that seeks to provide loans to businesses owned by African-Americans and Latinos. The fund is looking to raise $2 to $5 million in its initial investment phase. The average loan amount will be around $175,000, and the fund’s managers plan to give out three or four loans each year.
Perhaps other chambers will eventually follow in Cincinnati’s footsteps on this front, too.

“Greater Cincinnati is the home of many firsts,” German says. “It only makes sense, given our rich heritage of innovation, that we would pilot a program which at its core is about companies reaching their economic potential.”
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