Game On: Awe-inspiring black entrepreneurs in Greater Cincinnati

The owners of Mr. Bubbles Auto Detailing are more than just entrepreneurs — they’re leaders of a social innovation.

I showed up to the garage located on East 13th Street in Cincinnati’s Pendleton neighborhood, located just east of Over-the-Rhine, to find that Marvin Butts, owner of Mr. Bubbles, doing what he does best, talking with members of the community. Tabatha Anderson, his partner in life and in business, corralled him in to begin our interview. “It’s time to start,” she says to him.

The mid-summer sun was blazing, heating up the street of the historic Cincinnati neighborhood, and when Marvin joins Tabatha and I in his air-conditioned office, his eyes light up with anticipation to begin.

In earlier conversations with Tabatha, in an attempt to set up the mid-morning interview, I fired off vague and somewhat pretentious suggestions about what we would talk about; like what made them want to jump into business entrepreneurship, or how difficult it is being a black-owned business over the years — maybe they would want to talk about that or their love of the community.

She received my message and was prepared.

Currently, black-owned businesses are a rapidly growing economic force in the United States, which impressive and hard-won considering the challenges that black entrepreneurs face, including lack of startup capital, resources and loans, along with racial discrimination within sectors of financing and technology.

According to the Census Bureau’s snapshot of American businesses, the fraction of companies owned by African-Americans rose between 2007 and 2012. In 2007, 7.1 percent of U.S. companies were headed by an African-American. By 2012, that share had risen to 9.4 percent. It also states that black-owned businesses operate at a far lower rate than other organizations. In 2012, their sales accounted for only 0.6 percent of sales of all American companies.

Marvin and Tabatha have weathered the storm of entrepreneurship, through the good and the bad. Over the past 20 years the two social entrepreneurs have made formidable gains, both behind and in front of the counter. “I attended the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP for fashion design and sports management,” Marvin said. “I never thought I’d be doing what I do today.”

Outside of their two-decade career, they have managed to follow their hearts as well. After the loss of his sister to cancer, Marvin wanted to make sure that more people were aware of the pitfalls of the disease and founded The Butts Family Foundation, a nonprofit organization with an aim to reach into the lives of others for positive change through giving, caring, sharing, education and, most of all, love.

And they’re not alone: There’s a large number of black entrepreneurs who have made sure that, as their success grows, their giving grows as well.

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Allen Woods, MORTAR, Co-Founder

Allen is celebrating his fourth year as one of three co-founders of MORTAR. Over the years, MORTAR has gained recognition in the region for being one of the most successful business incubators for black entrepreneurs.

MORTAR aims to lend a voice to traditionally marginalized entrepreneurs. Being an organization founded by three black men helps MORTAR to uniquely position itself as a link to those they serve and Allen, along with MORTAR’s two other co-founders Derrick Braziel and William Thomas, saw a need here in Cincinnati.

“The idea for MORTAR came from us recognizing that Cincinnati had recognizable diversity throughout the city,” says Allen. “We also noticed that, when you went to certain redeveloping parts of the community, that diversity wasn't as apparent in the business ownership.”

Some of the organization’s present initiatives include its Entrepreneurship Academy, providing space at pop-up shops in Over-the-Rhine and Walnut Hills, and offering low-interest start-up capital through their Iron Chest Fund.

“Our Nation has a history of developing policies after slavery like Redlining and Jim Crow,” Allen says, describing challenges black entrepreneurs face here in Cincinnati. “These policies were designed to continue to keep African-American communities disconnected from opportunities for land and home ownership — things that have allowed other demographics to build wealth.”

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Means Cameron, BlaCk OWned Outerwear, Founder

You have seen the gear designed by this Miami University of Ohio grad all around town, and it has grown into its own lifestyle brand. Born and raised in Cincinnati and a graduate of Dater High School, Means has taken his once unknown brand from its brick and mortar location downtown to other parts of the country. Celebrities like Jennifer Hudson have been spotted sporting the BlaCk OWned brand.

“I was fascinated with what I could say with the way that I was dressed,” he says about how he developed his brand. “I felt that I was brave enough to make the statement that no one else wanted to make. And that statement was BlaCk OWned. I knew that it was provocative, and that excited me.”

Means’ pathway to success began at an early age, but it wasn’t always the easiest path to take. So he wants to serve as an example to other dreamers who may not think that their dreams could be reality.

“Know your stuff,” he says to up-and-coming black entrepreneurs in Cincinnati. “Most of us didn't have anyone who came before us to teach us the ins and outs of business. But I'm here to change that.”

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Tamia Stinson, Tether, Founder

According to Tamia’s website, Tether is a “community and talent resource for creative image-makers.” Her excitement and love for Tether shows when she speaks about how she came up with the idea to bring creatives together.

“It was a combination of being inspired by Le Book (a directory she learned about years ago while interning at a magazine in London), and wanting to create a way to help people find and hire local photographers, hair and makeup artists, and fellow stylists,” she says. We need to collaborate, and people need paid work to be able to make a living so they can thrive — and stay — in the Cincinnati region.”

Tamia, who grew up in Forest Park and graduated from Winton Woods High School, spoke of what skills helped to propel her success. “Planning, productivity, and persistence,” she says. “Know what you're going to do next, do it, and keep going.”

Despite her preparation, she still feels that she has additional barriers when trying to make her business work. “Sometimes, I can tell that a person doesn’t think that I've done my research, or they earnestly give me extremely basic advice that makes it clear they don't think that I know what I'm talking about,” she says.

She values the fact that her entrepreneurship, as a black woman, could help others to succeed with fewer barriers. “You don't have to have everything 100 percent figured out, and you don't have to wait until things are perfect to get started,” she advises. “Think about what you can do with what you have now, and start with that. Just start."


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Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.