CINCINNATI -- When Calista H. Smith became part of the African-American Chamber's Sudduth Society, she was the lone employee of her consulting firm.
Now after completing the 90-day business growth program, she is looking to hire another employee at a salary of $60,000 per year or more.
"This is a professional salary position I'm able to offer. I don't think I would have had the full confidence in structuring and managing the position the same way without working through the program," said Smith, president of CH Smith & Associates. "A program like this can help businesses grow from a microenterprise."
That's the whole point of the Sudduth Society -- to help the region's small, black-owned businesses grow to become million-dollar enterprises.
"Some of society's ills that are out there -- this is kryptonite to solve them," said Eric Kearney, president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce. "We have problems with unemployment or underemployment. These entrepreneurs are looking to hire people -- are looking to grow. And a strong business community helps with schools, helps with crime and helps with neighborhood development."
The Sudduth Society was named after Horace Sudduth, a native of Covington who worked as a Pullman railroad car porter before he made his fortune in real estate and banking. He was a leading African-American businessman before his death in 1957 at the age of 68.
The first five business owners to go through the program completed it in May. Smith was one of them. Others included Ketan Pema, founder of the commercial laundry business World Class Laundry and Linens, Inc., and John Harmon, president and CEO of Market Direct Inc., a marketing services company.
All three said the program helped them in more ways than they could have predicted.
The 'secret sauce'
Pema applied to be part of the program to get the guidance he needed to grow his 10-year-old business.
"As business owners, we wear every hat there is to wear, and we're always looking down at our foot," Pema said. "I had to raise my head and look up to what is happening five years from today."
The Sudduth Society program helped Pema plan ahead for his business and realize that there were opportunities he had not considered to do business near Dayton, for example, and with hospital systems he had not approached in the past.
"We are going after the bigger contracts," he said. "We have a pipeline going."
Harmon said his marketing services company has seen growth already.
"Right now we're doing a lot more work with the state," he said. "We've completed some jobs for Ohio Job and Family Services, and we never thought they would have need for the services we offer."
The Sudduth Society program helped Harmon's company do a better job of explaining its services in a concise way and also helped Harmon make new contacts, he said.
"It has just really helped us in terms of understanding the secret sauce," Harmon said.
As a sole proprietor, Smith said there were times it was tricky for her to be at every Sudduth Society class.
"But I found it was well worth it," she said. "Doing the homework even when I missed a few sessions was valuable for me."
Straight talk, helpful conversation
As a 90-day program, the Sudduth Society is designed to have a meaningful impact quickly, said Anthony Barwick, the African-American Chamber's vice president and chief operating officer. The program culminates in a "pitch" competition, where the business participants promote their products and services to big companies and organizations that are poised to offer them contracts.
Keith Schneider, president of the entrepreneurial consulting firm SQUARE1, helped developed the program's curriculum with a focus on the details that small-business owners sometimes overlook because they get so busy day-to-day.
Participants attended a 90-minute class once a week and had homework to complete, too.
The Sudduth Society also has a "Procurement Advisory Council" made up of people who help make decisions about which companies get contracts with their businesses and organizations. The first session included representatives from the state of Ohio, Premiere Health, Sinclair Community College, the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, the Port Authority of Greater Cincinnati and the city of Cincinnati.
Originally announced in late 2014, the Sudduth Society program took a bit longer to launch than expected.
Former African-American Chamber CEO Sean Rugless said that's because funding cuts delayed the program. The chamber tested individual pieces of the proposed program in 2015 to show those would get results, he said, and that encouraged funders to provide the money needed to launch.
Now that the first group of business owners has completed the program, Schneider and the chamber have made some changes based on the graduates' suggestions.
For example, the next Sudduth Society session will condense some of the presentations on financial and legal help so that participants can get more one-on-one advice, Schneider said. And there will be more emphasis on hiring and building strong teams of employees next time, too.
The next Sudduth Society class could have as many as eight to 10 participants, Barwick said. But it won't get much bigger than that.
"With the small group, it allows for straight talk and more conducive conversation," he said. "We want to direct all of our attention to these businesses and focus on that."
If all goes as planned, that focus will help the companies that take part create more jobs -- and help create more vibrant communities throughout the region.
The African-American Chamber is accepting applications through 5 p.m. Sept. 19 for business owners who want to take part in the next round of classes.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. She has been writing about women- and minority-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati for more than 18 years. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.