William Thomas saw the problem.

The boarded-up storefronts in his poor Cincinnati, Ohio, neighborhood were coming back to life. Businesses were opening. Housing rehabilitation and construction were underway.

As he and friend Derrick Braziel walked through this area, called Over-the-Rhine, they saw a turnaround story familiar to many inner-city neighborhoods across the country. In some ways, this story was a positive one. But the economic vitality also had a damaging impact: the people already living there -- many of them poor and black -- were being left behind.

“We saw a lot of white-owned businesses pop up and saw a lot of residents who looked like us without the opportunities,” Thomas said, as he recalled that moment in 2014. “We saw a problem and complained about what was going on.”

Allen Woods and fellow co-founders William Thomas and Derrick Braziel seek to change neighborhoods by supporting residents who want to become entrepreneurs.​​​​​​

So college buddies Thomas and Braziel decided to stop complaining and start doing something. Now, four years later, the two men and another friend, Allen Woods, lead MORTAR, a community-based nonprofit that helps train budding entrepreneurs in neighborhoods that need revitalization.

These three men -- between the ages of 32 and 41 -- also have created a support network that makes sure these new entrepreneurs have the help they need to succeed.

They’ve already graduated 175 people from their entrepreneur training program, and then supported them with retail space, legal help, marketing materials and more. They have plans -- big plans -- to expand in Cincinnati and beyond, targeting other cities that can use the MORTAR model to revitalize neighborhoods.

What MORTAR has been able to do is reach a segment of the population that hasn’t been reached, the underserved,” said Eric Denson, a senior development analyst for the city of Cincinnati. “They’re serving a niche. They’re out on the streets, making themselves available, making [clients] know what’s available.”

Not only do these newly minted entrepreneurs help the area thrive and grow; the residents who are then able to stay have a stake in the neighborhood and its revitalization.

“We affect the community; … we see a large number of people pursuing their dreams,” Sadell Bradley, MORTAR’s strategic director, said. “It’s a unique kind of fire.”

Much like rubbing two sticks together, igniting this fire took patience and perseverance.

A dream, action and a pitch

Gentrification of the kind faced by Over-the-Rhine is an issue for cities across the country. From Los Angeles to Houston to Manhattan, poor neighborhoods are being gentrified at a dizzying rate. Incomes are on the rise, as residents with college educations are moving in. But that’s not always good for existing residents.

That’s where MORTAR comes in. The group’s name was inspired by a simple thought: When looking at redevelopment, we should look beyond the buildings to the people. While literal mortar holds buildings together, people are the mortar that holds communities together.

MORTAR doesn't seek to stop gentrification but rather empowers local residents to benefit from it. Are there similar opportunities to empower people to benefit from economic trends in your community?

The MORTAR office is in the middle of Over-the-Rhine, on its main thoroughfare, Vine Street. The area thrives with restaurants, shops and vibrant nightlife -- a far cry from less than a decade ago, when Over-the-Rhine was dubbed the most dangerous neighborhood in America.

The neighborhood reached a low point in 2001, when a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager, starting days of riots. By 2002, the city of Cincinnati had developed a plan for Over-the-Rhine’s revitalization.

There’s no doubt that OTR is coming back. Its population is on the rise, up to nearly 7,000 residents after dropping by more than half between 1990 and 2014. Some 175 new business have opened in the area since 2006. The arts-and-culture scene bustles, and community events keep the neighborhood busy year-round.

While outside forces have come in, MORTAR has played an integral role in ensuring that more neighborhood people have a chance at entrepreneurial success and can stay in the area when the going gets good.

This was the mission that inspired Thomas and Braziel to take their idea to a local pitch night, where startup businesses vied to attract notice -- and perhaps funding. They won $2,500.

MORTAR co-founders Allen Woods, Derrick Braziel and William Thomas at a recent pitch night.

But they knew they would need much more money to launch their program. While still working full time at other jobs back in 2014, they met with as many potential funders as possible. They received far more rejection than funds.

“We got a lot of, ‘That sounds good’ or redirecting us to another organization that did similar work,” Thomas said. “We weren’t sure whether it [was] because we were three young black men or the idea was too risky -- or both.”

Most news stories about MORTAR note that it’s an African-American-led group but don’t explain why that matters. While small minority businesses are opening at a faster rate than any others, minorities are likely to receive smaller small-business loans and at higher interest rates than their white counterparts, as shown, for example, in a 2010 U.S. Commerce Department report. That lack of access to capital can kill a business before it gets off the ground.

Are you facing unique challenges to your work? How do you keep from being discouraged by them?

None of that deterred MORTAR’s leaders, and things changed in 2015. MORTAR was seeking applicants for its first training class, and the announcement appeared in a local newspaper. The article also mentioned that MORTAR was looking for space for its burgeoning business.

The founders were contacted by a local entrepreneur who offered them free office and storage space in Over-the-Rhine.

“He wanted to figure out a way to give back, and this was it,” Thomas said.

That gesture made a huge difference. MORTAR now had an office, a place from which it could work -- and didn’t have to worry about paying for it right away.

After the success of the first training class, funding started coming in. It was slow at first -- about $20,000 the first year, about $50,000 the second -- but with MORTAR in the news and building momentum, community groups started to notice -- and became a huge part of MORTAR’s success. The nonprofit now has an impressive list of partners that includes several big banks, 3CDC, Proctor & Gamble, and the University of Cincinnati, whose law school provides legal assistance.

MORTAR’s leaders have networked beyond the city as well. Braziel spoke to the Forum for Theological Exploration’s Do Good X in 2017, spreading the message of “how we can tap into the nontraditional to empower others to change the world.”

How can your organization “tap into the nontraditional”? How would you find nontraditional partners and community support for your endeavors?

As its community involvement grew, so did MORTAR’s ability to raise funds. The group raised $500,000 in 2017 and hopes to raise $700,000 in 2018, Braziel said.

The increased funding helps MORTAR continue to spread its own brand of gospel -- bringing together the resources to help make the entrepreneurial dream a success.

Another type of gospel has influenced that mission.

Principles of faith

Christian faith, in one way or another, lies at the heart of Thomas and Braziel’s calling.

One of Thomas’ grandparents was a pastor at a nondenominational Cincinnati church -- a place where Thomas spent many Sundays of his youth.

Braziel grew up in the AME Church, but he found Christ in what he described as a “new and real” way during a mission trip through Athletes for Christ. When he and Thomas met at college, he was “digging into Scripture” when he came across a Bible verse, Ecclesiastes 9:4: “Anyone who is among the living has hope -- even a live dog is better off than a dead lion” (NIV). That verse changed his life.

“As long as a person has breath in their lungs, it doesn’t matter what their education pedigree is, how much money they have in their bank account, what their race is; we’re here to help,” Braziel said.

“We think the best way to do this is social, racial and economic justice. Loving God’s people comes through in the idea of giving them a space for their ideas to be cultivated and developed.”

When he studied that verse, he said, “I knew I needed to dedicate my life [to] supporting black and brown people using the love and promise of God.”

The Very Rev. Gail Greenwell, the dean of Christ Church Cathedral, one of MORTAR’s community partners, notes that MORTAR’s work is steeped in Judeo-Christian values.

“Keeping people in poverty benefits the empire, and we are trying to benefit the reign of God,” she said. “People who have experienced generational poverty need help lifting themselves out of it.

“That’s why MORTAR isn’t just a training program. It’s a support network that helps build skills and self-esteem, like a family that stays together and offers constant support.”

Graduates of MORTAR's first class in 2015.

‘The special sauce’ of MORTAR

MORTAR accepts 12 to 15 people into each of its six yearly training classes, all of which are 14 weeks long. When students begin the program, they generally have one emotion.

“They’re usually very scared,” said Woods, MORTAR’s managing partner and creative director. “For most of our participants, based on their background, they’ve been told ‘no’ for so long, they’ve been taught to believe that everything is impossible. It’s often the first time they’ve been around people who have that spirit of affirmation, that they can accomplish these things, while holding them accountable.”

The class helps students understand business basics. It costs just $250, and MORTAR offers payment plans for students who can’t afford the entire fee upfront. The budding entrepreneurs get help refining their ideas and are assigned mentors to guide them through the class.

“There’s more to make a successful business,” Braziel said. “A network, legal help, mentors -- that’s the special sauce of MORTAR.”

Networks and ongoing relationships are key to the MORTAR model. Does your organization make such connections to its clients, employees or participants?

Graduates go into the alumni program, which provides further support, including business mentors, networking opportunities, access to business funding, pop-up store space to showcase goods and services, and legal help.

What MORTAR has done is leverage relationships in a way that helps more than just the individual graduates; it helps revitalize their neighborhood.

“One of the major connections has been the prominence of MORTAR as a change agent within the community,” said Bradley, MORTAR’s strategic director. MORTAR has forged so many connections it’s now a big part of Cincinnati’s fabric.

“The ties politically and socially, grant-making operations -- it’s bringing everyone together in support of this cause,” Bradley said. “I’ve lived here 30 years, and I’ve not seen an organization that has been able to galvanize this kind of support.”

Such support has proved critical to Rebecca Denney’s success.

A system of continuing support

Denney is living her dream, and she credits MORTAR’s class, network and continued support.

Denney left a corporate job to figure out her next step in life. As a health-conscious eater, she wanted to open a place that focused on healthy eating. She had an idea, a logo and a menu, but she didn’t know what to do next. She had no business plan and didn’t know how to move forward.

She went through the MORTAR training program, and through its network of resources, she landed a catering job for a large nonprofit. The nonprofit was so impressed with her food that it offered a chance to fulfill her dream -- a small cafe nestled in the bottom floor of a downtown Cincinnati office building.

That’s where she opened Paleolicious, a breakfast and lunch shop, with the tagline “Because healthy food should always be delicious.”

But just because she’s graduated and has her own business -- and dreams of expansion -- doesn’t mean she’s on her own. One MORTAR graduate hired her to cater her art gallery grand opening; another hired her to do a cooking class for her bridal shower.

“It’s amazing how everybody has each other’s back,” she said.

Woods, lauded in 2016 as a Cincinnati Business Courier Forty under 40 Business Leader, said that’s MORTAR’s mission: “The support after the fact is just as critical as the initial training. We’re creating a system that allows us to continue to guide them.”

Graduates are in the alumni program for 18 months, and when that time is up, they are still welcome to come back -- and many do -- for assistance. MORTAR never shuts them out.

MORTAR has graduated 200 budding entrepreneurs in 15 classes over the last four years, and about 65 percent of them are still active in their new ventures in some way. Some MORTAR grads, like Denney, work at their business full time; others operate them on the side for extra money. In all, MORTAR graduates have a median business income of $23,000 a year.

By traditional business measures, that may not seem too impressive. But it’s important to remember that most MORTAR grads are African-American, with single-owner businesses.

“Those traditional measures -- jobs created, revenue -- don’t always work with the people we work with, so we need some more nontraditional measures,” Braziel said.

MORTAR is still working on exactly what those should be. Braziel believes they’ll be more qualitative, such as measuring whether a business has incorporated or has grown its social media audience.

As Cincinnati neighborhoods such as Over-the-Rhine are revitalized, MORTAR helps ensure that people already living there benefit economically.

Branching out

MORTAR is now in five Cincinnati communities. Thomas, who does much of the groundwork, meets with high-level stakeholders such as developers, community councils, businesses and organizations to make sure they’ll support MORTAR’s efforts.

That support comes in several different ways. Maybe it’s financial. Maybe someone can offer space for entrepreneurs. Maybe they’ll help spread the word. Once MORTAR has that community support, it’s ready to start recruiting for training classes.

MORTAR is pursuing other citywide efforts as well. It is opening pop-up stores throughout Cincinnati, offering space to its graduates at a reduced rate, so they have a place to sell their wares. The first was in Over-the-Rhine, in the former storage space next to MORTAR’s office.

There are now four, including the MORTAR Mess Hall, where entrepreneurs rotate two to three days a week preparing food at a local bar. The city of Cincinnati is also using the pop-up concept, with two locations downtown and two in another neighborhood.

In the Walnut Hills neighborhood, where MORTAR has opened a pop-up, the nonprofit has also been working with the local neighborhood association and is helping local entrepreneur and MORTAR grad Brian Jackson open the city’s first black-owned brewery.

Now MORTAR is branching out to other cities, expanding to Milwaukee, where Woods and Bradley recently spent time showcasing a new curriculum for an entrepreneur training class.

MORTAR seeks to expand on a local and regional level. What scale of impact does your organization seek to have? Could you expand your horizon and stay sustainable?

The concept, Woods said, is transferable to other communities, but “it requires people who care to step up and create the platform for other people.”

And that isn’t the only challenge.

MORTAR is doing well, but its leaders realize that success can be fleeting. Funding is a constant challenge. It costs $2,500 per person -- at least $30,000 total -- to put on one MORTAR training class.

MORTAR knows it needs to define success in a different way, and to manage growth.

“We are an all-black organization, and that brings its own set of risks,” Braziel said. “Access to capital will always be a problem. From a perception standpoint, we’re always fighting against being held to a different standard and being told to perform at a higher level. Everybody makes mistakes. We’re only going to be successful if people are willing to take a risk on us.”

So far, the people of Cincinnati have, and as a result, there is hope. Just as in Ecclesiastes 9:4.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • MORTAR doesn't seek to stop gentrification but rather empowers local residents to benefit from it. Are there similar opportunities to empower people to benefit from economic trends in your community?
  • Are you facing unique challenges to your work? How do you keep from being discouraged by them?
  • How can your organization “tap into the nontraditional”? How would you find nontraditional partners and community support for your endeavors?
  • Networks and ongoing relationships are key to the MORTAR model. Does your organization make such connections to its clients, employees or participants?
  • MORTAR seeks to expand on a local and regional level. What scale of impact does your organization seek to have? Could you expand your horizon and stay sustainable?