The Entrepreneurial City: Where ideas, networks, and connections thrive

Cities are engines of our local and national economies, and centers of creativity, culture, and entertainment. But they are under more pressure than ever. This is the third in a monthly series, The Case for Cities, that will look at how Cincinnati and similar cities can grow by becoming places of choice, as well as models of social justice.

It may be a $76 billion global empire now, but Procter & Gamble was once little more than an idea.

An English candle maker named William Procter and an Irish soap maker named James Gamble somehow made their separate ways to Cincinnati, a thriving hub of trade in the early 19th century that was driven by the meatpacking industry, and linked to the rest of the country by the Ohio River and the Miami and Erie Canals.

The two men experienced an economic crisis and shared a persuasive father-in-law (love also plays a part in this story, as the two had married sisters), and compelled Mr. Procter and Mr. Gamble to pool their capital, amounting to around $7,000, to launch a business.

It was “an obscure startup in a churning sea of ventures and failures,” according to Rising Tide, P&G’s semi-official biography.

It succeeded, of course.

Its success had a lot to do with the rough-and-tumble economy of 1830s Cincinnati and the connections they made in this city. They gleaned raw materials from the slaughterhouses; they learned new efficient methods of production from the meat packers; and they sold their goods in other cities thanks to the waterborne transportation links.

Those connections are still the reasons why entrepreneurs in the 21st century find cities to be opportune places to start ventures. New ideas, such as Procter and Gamble’s notion to mass-produce candles and soap, can take root in cities, where the networks and contacts exist to test those concepts, attract talented people, find partners and customers, and grow.

Entrepreneurs need dense populations, diverse networks, and access to funding and support to be successful, says Tyler Mathews, who runs Venture Café St. Louis, an entrepreneurship community in that city. All those things are traditionally found in bulk in metropolises.

“You want a high-quality network of folks,” Mathews says. “The more people in your network, the more likely you are to get good ideas.”

Cities also have problems, and problems need solutions, something entrepreneurs are good at finding and capitalizing on.

“Cities are fantastic innovation labs,” says Pete Blackshaw, CEO of Cincinnati startup hub Cintrifuse. “Cities are the core of some of society’s great challenges. And great challenges drive innovation.”

Pete BlackshawCintrifuse, located in the urban core in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, is the type of  resource entrepreneurs can tap into at any stage of their business-building. It can connect new businesses to a network of mentors, accelerators, potential customers, and funding.

“Helping startups win is our core mission,” Blackshaw says.

One of Cintrifuse’s main objectives is to help develop the next Procter & Gamble, or the next Kroger, another Cincinnati startup, circa 1883. Big companies like that attract smart people who sometimes end up starting their own companies.

Blackshaw himself is a P&G alum who founded a startup called Planet Feedback in the 1990s.

Marvin Abrinica is also a P&G alum, having worked 17 years there before branching out on his own. He started Wunderfund, a digital resource for crowdfunding new ventures. One of Wunderfund’s first clients was a premed student at the University of Cincinnati named Brian Jackson, who decided that making craft beer was a more satisfying career option.

Jackson and Abrinica teamed up to start Esoteric Brewing, and through crowdfunding raised nearly a million dollars to get their venture off the ground. When it came to time to locate the brewery and its retail taproom, they considered the suburbs, but found what they needed in the urban neighborhood of Walnut Hills.

Only a city would have a structure like the Paramount Square Building, an Art Deco gem from the 1930s that was vacant and waiting to be occupied. The Paramount building dominates the intersection of Gilbert and McMillan streets, once known as Peebles Corner, but had been empty for years and underutilized before that.

It was a good fit for the business, with a street-level space that could be rehabbed into a taproom, and a basement with a solid foundation that could support the brewing equipment. The building's new life has been a key part of the ongoing revitalization of Walnut Hills.   

"It all made sense to us," Jackson says.

Jackson also benefitted from the assistance he received from Mortar, a startup hub focused on entrepreneurs of color and women. Mortar was started in 2014 by Allen Woods, William Thomas, and Derrick Braziel. Woods arrived in Cincinnati about 10 years ago from Indianapolis, looked around and saw a lot of diversity in the city’s neighborhoods, but not so much among the business owners.

“We had the idea of making the business community in Cincinnati look more like Cincinnati,” he says.

Allen WoodsIn a city that is roughly 50% Black, only 18% of the businesses are owned by Black people, Woods says.

“We wanted to create something that would make it more equitable for entrepreneurs in the community,” he says.

What they created was a 15-week curriculum of three-hour, attendance-required classes designed to give budding entrepreneurs a sense of what they’ll need to succeed, and to create a network of like-minded people who can share ideas, problems, and solutions.

Assistance from Mortar staff doesn’t end after the classes are over. Alums of the program also serve as mentors for those just getting started. Mortar organizes pop-up shops in vacant storefronts to test concepts and to get around one of the big problems for minority entrepreneurs – access to affordable space. Mortar is also working on the access to capital problem by joining a microenterprise loan fund and partnering with a crowdfunding platform.

Mortar started in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine and then expanded to Walnut Hills, a historically Black community that had experienced decades of disinvestment and decline. Cities have historically been the places where Blacks and other minorities have experienced closed doors and systemic obstructions to success. So cities are where Woods and his partners decided to set up shop.

“We have to think about where the core of the challenges are,” he says. “The majority of the time they’re taking place in a city environment or in the urban core where entrepreneurs are trying to pursue the American dream within their own neighborhoods.”   

Since 2014, Mortar has expended its program to Covington, Ky., Milwaukee, Akron, Ohio, Kansas City, Mo., and Tulsa, Okla.

Mortar can boast more than 300 graduates in Cincinnati alone, with more than 70% of them still in business, Woods says. In 2019, the Mortar grads accounted for $4.4 million in net profit, he says.

Brian Jackson completed the 15-week program, found his partner, Abrinica, through the network, and was connected with the developer that was restoring and renovating the Paramount Square through the network.

“I don’t know where I would be without their assistance,” he says.

Mortar and Cintrifuse are just two of the organizations created to assist entrepreneurs.

The Cincinnati Innovation District is a fledgling tech hub anchored by the University of Cincinnati’s 1819 Innovation Hub. It's an under-development neighborhood of jobs and research that includes the campuses of UC and Cincinnati State, the medical and research centers of UC Health and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the Cincinnati office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a new campus that will consolidate offices of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

The District was conceived as a solution to a problem: too many talented grads from local universities were finding jobs on the coasts or in larger cities. Cincinnati needed a way to turn up the temperature on its tech talent ecosystem, keep smart people here, attract new ones, and serve the businesses that need that help.

Silicon Valley has a 70-year head start as a nexus of high-tech talent and capital, so Cincinnati's innovation district has been targeted for growth and investment by the state of Ohio, the city of Cincinnati, the University of Cincinnati, and other stakeholders.

Many other organizations support Cincinnati's entrepreneurship ecosystem. CincyTech is a seed-stage investor partly financed with state funding. The Chamber’s Minority Business Accelerator works with a portfolio of young firms to assist their growth; Blue North is a Northern Kentucky startup hub; Hillman Accelerator is focused on women- and minority-owned businesses; and HCDC offers a suite of services to small businesses, including an incubator facility.

There are many more. The next P&G might even be percolating at one.   

READ MORE: Why cities matter now more than ever

READ MORE: The Public City: Why public spaces are essential to our physical, political and social health

You can view and listen to The Case for Cities conversation series here.

The Case for Cities: Cities of Choice are Cities of Justice series is a partnership between UC School of Planning and Soapbox Cincinnati, made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.