Mortar's newest startup grads are already making strides

Entrepreneurship accelerator Mortar Cincinnati celebrated the graduation of its third class with a pitch night Dec. 15, when more than 250 people gathered in its Walnut Hills pop-up space Brick 939.
Mortar has been on fire lately, and two of the three founders were recently named in Forbes’ 30 under 30 for Social Enterprise. Yet the “Life’s a Pitch” event — sponsored by Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation, LISC, African-American Chamber of Commerce and Value City Furniture, host for Brick 939 — wasn’t about the founders, but about their students and community.
Although the night may have been the end of a nine-week business incubator class, it was just the beginning for the new entrepreneurs. Many had already come a long way in a very short time.
“We started out as a concept in our backyard hosting cookouts,” explains Kristen Bailey of Sweets and Meats BBQ, which also provided food for the pitch night event.
Bailey earned recognition as one of the top three pitches Dec. 15 and will compete in June against top pitches from previous Mortar classes. Bailey held her first official Sweets and Meats event just a little more than a year ago, with her only marketing consisting of fliers passed out to neighbors with Halloween candy.
Taking home pitch night’s top honor was Anton Canady, founder of PUSH, or “Pray Until Something Happens.”
Canady started putting his motto on T-shirts to sell after his release from prison last summer. He uses money raised from shirt sales to help support children whose parents are incarcerated, knowing from his own experience how difficult it was to provide for his own children.
“I started after doing seven and a half years of incarceration, and my kids had suffered at the time,” Canady says. “I had to call and borrow money for back-to-school shoes, holidays, birthdays. I couldn’t be there physically, but I wanted to be there materially.”
So PUSH is much more than the clothing line — it’s Canady’s way of paying his experience forward.
Although their projects are vastly different, the two Mortar graduates have a lot in common. They were both immediately drawn to the Mortar program and were tenacious in their efforts to connect with it.
Canady found Mortar’s Over-the-Rhine building while job hunting near his halfway house after incarceration. He knocked on the window until co-founder Derrick Braziel, who was inside preparing for a class, noticed and came out to speak to him.
Bailey had already been taking workshops about small business and entrepreneurship through various local organizations, but when she saw Mortar co-founder Allen Woods give a presentation at Crossroads Church, where she is a member, she went home and applied to Mortar that night. She remained on the waiting list until being admitted into the October class.
While Canady and Bailey both knew Mortar would be important for their ventures, they might not have been able to predict the personal impact the founders and community would have on them.
“It’s more of a psychological thing,” Canady says. “I’ve been going through stuff my whole life, and I haven’t had many proud moments. …When I graduated from Mortar and won pitch night, it made me want to go even harder.”
Bailey has similar sentiments about the Mortar founders as well as her SCORE mentor from the class.
“Their commitment is second to none,” she says. “I’ve never had anybody build into me and believe in me as much as they did.”
Now, thanks to the empowerment experienced in the program, these Mortar grads are taking even bigger “leaps of faith,” as Bailey puts it.
Sweets and Meats has ordered a custom food truck to move up from catering and setting up at events into Cincinnati’s food truck scene. Bailey is fundraising for the truck via an active Indiegogo campaign (currently at 39 percent of goal), and the purchase would be a big step up for the company.
“We were going to these food truck rallies with a tent,” Bailey says, explaining that their previous setup was no longer cutting it. “We actually lost business by not having a truck.”
While Bailey is hoping to debut her truck in March for food truck season, Sweets and Meats is hard at work catering. The company just started a contract with Aramark food services — a weekly commitment that provides some stable ground to build on.
PUSH is also looking to build and expand. Although the nonprofit is only six months old, the shirt line is available in several stores around town. Canady says he’ll soon begin merchandising beyond T-shirts to other types of apparel and goods, allowing him to then expand his community support, including long-term mentorship for two children.
“I know it’s kind of cliche, but if we can only help one or two, in the long run we’ll be doing our part,” Canady says. “There is not a shortage of people to help.”
To expand its capacity, PUSH is also raising funds to move into its first office space.