Minority entrepreneurs work together to help grow each other's businesses

LaVerdad, Smart IT Staffing met through MBA

Karen Cooper remembers the exact day she decided she wanted Mike Robinson to help market her business.

The two entrepreneurs were attending the South Central Ohio Minority Supplier Development Council gala on Nov. 16, 2012, and the hundreds of people at the event all seemed to know Robinson by name.

“I thought, ‘This guy knows everyone. I need to know everyone, too,’” Cooper said.

Within a few weeks, Cooper had hired Robinson’s Montgomery-based LaVerdad Marketing to help build the profile of her Smart IT Staffing business, which has corporate offices in Indianapolis and Sycamore Township.

She couldn’t be more pleased.

“We were struggling in the Cincinnati market with name recognition,” Cooper said. “And I know the name recognition we have in this market is so much better and so much stronger at this point than it was a year ago.”

But this isn’t just a story about a business owner who is happy with her marketing and public relations agency. It’s a story about minority-owned companies doing business with each other and, in turn, helping each other prosper.

“We’re both fighting in the trenches every single day for every piece of business we get,” Robinson said.

LaVerdad is a 22-employee certified minority-owned business, and Robinson is one of the region’s most outspoken Hispanic business owners. Smart IT Staffing is a certified minority-owned and woman-owned business that Cooper expects to generate $32 million in revenue this year. She has 52 employees and more than 350 consultants and contractors who are placed through her business.

Both are part of the Minority Business Accelerator housed at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, which is how Robinson and Cooper met.

Role Of Region's MBA

The program, known as the MBA, is designed to help grow sizeable minority-owned businesses in the region.

To qualify, a business must be a certified minority business enterprise that is either African-American- or Hispanic-owned.

Businesses also must have annual revenue of $1 million or more, be members of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber and have a headquarters or significant presence in the Tri-State region.

The goal of the MBA is to introduce so-called portfolio companies, such as LaVerdad and Smart IT, to major corporations that want to do business with minority-owned firms.

But the program also gives minority-owned firms a chance to network and learn from each other, said Crystal German, vice president of the MBA and economic inclusion.

“Just like with any other businesses, you start to develop relationships and see where there are common interests,” German said.

The fact that the MBA staff already has vetted the portfolio companies also gives company owners added incentive to do business with each other, Robinson said. The fact that companies are part of the MBA means they have the staff and experience necessary to handle significant contracts, he said.

And minority entrepreneurs share certain experiences in common that other business owners might not, Robinson added.

For example, LaVerdad has won several contracts with the state of Ohio and has learned how to navigate that government bureaucracy, Robinson said. He plans to use that experience to help Cooper if she decides there are state contracts her company should pursue, he said.

Robinson is committed to helping Cooper grow Smart IT Staffing in any way he can.

He believes the company has the potential to be one of the region’s largest businesses, not just one of the largest minority- or woman-owned businesses.

Cooper believes in that potential, too. She’s looking to build a new Cincinnati office that is four times as large as the 4,000-square-foot space she has here now.

Cooper is hoping to hit $50 million in annual revenue in 2014, and she’s poised to open an office in Columbus, too.

“The opportunities are there,” she said. “I think we have a pretty good delivery model in place.”

For his part, Robinson believes in Cooper’s company so strongly that he’s managing the account directly rather than assigning it to one of his own employees.

“In this case, there’s an opportunity for us to help Karen,” he said. “And that should help us grow along with her.” 

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