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Opportunity to build her 'Own Lane'
Julie Scheidegger
Senior Content Strategist, Public Affairs Kauffman Foundation
Simion Collins
Filmmaker River Sky Films

Opportunity to build her 'Own Lane'

In a district with only 6 percent black business owners, Chanel Scales lives out her entrepreneurial journey with the support of the MORTAR family as a brick-and-mortar business owner in the heart of Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood.

Through community-informed strategies and culturally relevant programming, @weareMORTAR is at the forefront of entrepreneurial possibility in Cincinnati.

When the email from MORTAR hit Chanel Scales’ inbox, she was working in Atlanta. It had been two years since she graduated from the MORTAR’s entrepreneurship program back in Cincinnati. The email contained exciting news: There was an opportunity for a MORTAR graduate to get retail space on Vine Street in the now-bustling Over the Rhine (OTR) neighborhood.

In Atlanta, Scales had been following her talents and ambitions, building a reputation in the fashion industry. But, pregnant with her daughter, the stakes felt higher.

"When I was pregnant, I went back to work full time. I literally was getting up every day at 5 o'clock in the morning. I was still carrying mannequins, I was still doing their window executions," Scales said of that time. "I traveled for years, and I opened up retail stores for other brands and was really good at it. But it got to the point where I felt like, if I could do this, and I can be successful for them, why couldn't I do it for myself?

"And at that point, I kind of knew that I can do this."

She answered the email.

Scales' business plan was old and needed to be freshened up. MORTAR set her up with what she needed. "I was meeting with my mentor over the phone probably twice a week until I got back to Cincinnati. I was talking to my accountant over the phone until I got back to Cincinnati."

She was going back home with two babies – her daughter, Harlem, and her shop, "Own Lane Shoetique."

The MORTAR model

"I think a lot of times, people don't realize that having MORTAR behind you really says a lot about you, it says that you take entrepreneurship serious, you're serious about it. That you are willing to work," Scales said.

Her business, which sells unique shoes, fashion, and accessories, has been open since fall of 2018 – and she’s beating her daily sales goals.

But, in OTR – in a city where 43 percent of residents are black – Scales is one of only 6 percent of black business owners.

She’s also one of the first to begin to change that statistic as part of the Represent initiative. For MORTAR, Represent was a response to the building frustration with the OTR business district not being reflective of the neighborhood and city.

"We pulled together key stakeholders and leaders including development organizations (3CDC, Model Group, and Urban Sites), the OTR Chamber, a couple Cincinnati City council members, the African-American Chamber, Findlay Market, and more to push this effort forward," said William Thomas, MORTAR founding partner.

They collected data in order to create, and agree on a shared goal for the number of new black-owned businesses OTR would need each year moving forward to start to make it more representative. This community-driven initiative now ensures that 60 percent of new businesses in OTR are black-owned.

"I believe this has the possibility of drastically increasing the vibrancy, energy, and sense of collective energy in such a unique neighborhood," Thomas said.

MORTAR is at the forefront of possibility in Cincinnati. The nonprofit’s uncommon model launched in 2014 with a $2,000 pitch-night prize that soon grew with its first class of MORTAR entrepreneurs and evidence that 50 percent of the businesses that went through the program were still in existence two years after graduating. Impressed with MORTAR’s deep community partnerships, data-rich approach, and structural thinking, the Kauffman Foundation awarded it an Inclusion Open grant in 2017.

With the additional support, the MORTAR mission was catalyzed to enable more underserved entrepreneurs and businesses to succeed, creating opportunities to build communities through entrepreneurship through a nine-week entrepreneurship program, with locations in the OTR and Walnut Hills neighborhoods that serve as resource hubs for urban entrepreneurs. Not to mention, Thomas, and his partners, Derrick Braziel and Allen Woods, and the whole MORTAR family, working as constant advocates for the mission in every corner of the city.

Visiting MORTAR in Cincinnati

During the summer of 2018, Kauffman associates went to Cincinnati to learn more about Inclusion Open grantee, MORTAR.

"If MORTAR didn't exist ... to be honest, I don't think that I would be here, in this moment, in my storefront," Scales said. "I say that because the tools that were provided and the relationships that I have been able to build, I am pretty sure that I wouldn't have been able to build them without them, without their trust, without their seeing me be somebody who believes in themselves."

MORTAR’s founders believe by targeting underserved and redeveloping communities, they offer non-traditional entrepreneurs, who often live in the neighborhood, the opportunity to use their inherent talents to not just make a dollar, but to positively participate in the rise of Cincinnati.

The scope of MORTAR’s community-informed strategies and culturally relevant programming, as well as its systemic, organizational commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, is at the heart of Kauffman’s investment in MORTAR. "MORTAR’s ability to focus on each entrepreneur, with a vision and genuine understanding of the impact that each entrepreneur has on families, neighborhoods, communities, and ultimately the city of Cincinnati, combined with its ability to build effective relationships and actionable data, makes it the kind of uncommon model we look for in grantees," said Chris Harris, senior program officer in Entrepreneurship.

MORTAR is now in position for continued growth, with its own curriculum that can reach beyond Cincinnati.

"After a few years of learning and on-the-ground experience, we created our own curriculum to better support minority entrepreneurs," Thomas said. “[We’re] beginning to build-out more clearly what it takes to create an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem. I believe we will not only be able to better more entrepreneurs in communities across Cincinnati, but we are also building the foundation to support more minority entrepreneurs across the country."

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