Why Cincinnati business leaders are working to attract more minority entrepreneurs to the tri-state state

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CINCINNATI – Joe Vazquez started his construction company in 2008 – hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, but believed his background as a CPA would help him thrive in business during an economic downturn.

With nearly 100 employees and annual sales of nearly $ 50 million, Vazquez plans to grow Vazquez Commercial Contracting, LLC to $ 250 million in sales within the next seven years.

He expects much of this growth to happen more than 500 miles from his company’s headquarters in Kansas City – right here in the greater Cincinnati area.

“I see Cincinnati bigger than what I have in Kansas City,” Vazquez told WCPO. “Cincinnati will be such a big part of our growth.”

Courtesy Vazquez Commercial Contracting

Joe Vazquez

Business leaders hope that minority entrepreneurs like Vazquez can also be an important part of the growth of the tri-state state. The Minority Business Accelerator at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber helped draw him to the area as part of a strategy to attract potential minority companies.

The Accelerator’s work is part of a larger job creation and wealth creation effort in the minority communities of Greater Cincinnati and across the region, said Darrin Redus, Vice President and Executive Director of the Accelerator.

“Our minority entrepreneurs create employment opportunities for all citizens,” said Redus. “There is absolutely a clear goal, desire, practice, etc. to ensure that they are hired within the minority community. Absolutely. But it’s not at the expense of others, and you’re talking about more engines for creating jobs for the entire community. “

Business and community leaders started the Minority Business Accelerator in 2003 in response to the 2001 riots that followed the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old black by a white Cincinnati police officer. The MBA, as it is called, was Cincinnati’s attempt to eradicate economic disparities that community leaders found were a major contributor to the unrest.

The African American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky preceded the MBA. Other organizations designed to support underrepresented entrepreneurs, such as MORTAR and the Hillman Accelerator, have followed.

These organizations are working together more than ever to create a network that will make Greater Cincinnati more attractive to minority entrepreneurs, said Candice Matthews Brackeen, founder and executive director of the Hillman Accelerator.

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Assuming / Aaron Conway

Candice and Brian Brackeen founded Lightship Capital in 2019.

“We’re all becoming much more conscious and expanding our own skills,” said Brackeen, who is also a general partner of Lightship Capital, a fund that raises $ 50 million to invest in technology companies run by people of color, women and LGBTQIAP and people with disabilities.

“Now is the time,” she said. “We suddenly have a nation – and maybe even a globe – full of people who are realizing that they don’t have to get stuck where they are. Can we as a city use this special moment? “

A competitive advantage

It took the police death of another black to get to this moment across the country. Protesters across the country have been calling for change since the brutal May 25 assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Brackeen said she was grateful that Cincinnati had already had these discussions, at least when it came to helping minority-owned companies.

“As in 2016 and 2017, it took a lot of hard discussions early on,” she said. “I think it would be a lot harder to start now than it was before. When we started having these conversations – at least in the innovation community – there was a moment of calm around us. I cannot imagine having conversations about justice and surviving this moment. “

The fact that Cincinnati has a head start in helping minority entrepreneurs bode well for the region, Redus said, especially given that racial and ethnic minorities are expected to make up the majority of the country’s population in the years to come .

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Lucy May | WCPO

Darrin Redus

“The cities that can further demonstrate that there are opportunities for all citizens only have a greater competitive advantage,” said Redus.

In a 2019 study by LendingTree.com, Cincinnati was listed as the 10th best city in the country where minority entrepreneurs thrive, just behind Atlanta. In fact, in the top 10 cities featured in the study, Cincinnati ranked first for the percentage of minority-owned businesses that have been in business for more than six years (62.3%) and the percentage of businesses minority ownership with more than $ 500,000 in revenue at 43.3%.

That says Redus that the region’s combined efforts are paying off, he said.

“When the wins come and we celebrate them, you will see that kind of snowball in a positive way and gain a lot of momentum,” said Redus.

Vazquez Commercial Contracting is the first major success for the MBA’s strategy to attract minority companies, which began about two years ago. The accelerator is focused on securing expansions for minority-owned companies with annual sales of at least $ 20 million and a focus that other local businesses do not yet have.

For Vazquez, that focus is on winning business with the federal government. The company opens an office here, has two employees in Cincinnati, and is already working with nine small companies in the Tri-State to help them win contracts with the federal government as well.

“We want to help educate the next group of minority businesses,” said Vazquez. “In this world, crazy as it is, we have to help each other.”

“A bigger pool of possibilities”

Liona Enterprises, an information technology company in Over-the-Rhine, has already won a $ 30,000 government contract with Vazquez. Michelle Morales-Denisoff, Liona’s CEO, said she thinks a small win could be the start of something much bigger.

“Hopefully it will be a good partnership and a good first partnership for us,” she said. “Great support from Joe and Vazquez will help Liona a lot.”

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Keizer Photography

Michelle Morales-Denisoff

Working with Vazquez could also mean a lot to Roselawn-based Journey Steel, said Barb Smith, the company’s president.

“Partnerships, strategic partnerships, collaborations – this is one of the areas most minority businesses need to grow,” said Smith. “It just gives us a bigger pool of opportunities to come together and strengthen the minority community, the minority business community.”

It’s about creating more opportunities for people, Brackeen said, and helping young people understand what opportunities there are.

Smith said Journey Steel hopes to do more of it as it grows through its Journey Steel Soaring Impact program, a preschool program that aims to teach students how to be an ironworker.

The bigger Journey Steel gets, the bigger the Soaring Impact program can get, Smith said, adding that the company wants to replicate the program in Kansas City as it works with Vazquez there too.

“This is one of the dreams we had for the trip,” she said. “To be able to go into markets that we couldn’t enter, to have a voice that we didn’t have a voice in before, to be able to help others, and, you know, the answers and understanding and to share really let them know we were there and now we have overcome and we want to help you overcome. “

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Lucy May | WCPO

Joe Vazquez (left) spoke to Barb Smith while visiting Journey Steel recently.

Involving people, Brackeen said, is the first step in empowering them.

“When people are left out it can lead to frustration,” she said. “If you leave part of society out financially, you suffer.”

And while successful minority entrepreneurs help color dream young people grow taller, Brackeen said, it also helps white people overcome misunderstandings they may not even know they have.

“My majority peers need to see black founders who are great at what they do,” she said. “You have to see that innovation comes from a black mind.”

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More information about the Minority Business Accelerator, Hillman Accelerator and Lightship Capital can be found online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places, and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and to highlight issues that we need to address. She has been reporting on women and minority owned companies in the greater Cincinnati area for more than 20 years. To reach Lucy, send an email to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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