CINCINNATI -- Starting her own law firm was an exercise in frustration for Donyetta Bailey.
When she tried to secure a business loan in 2008, the banks she approached required levels of revenue and lines of credit that were impossible to have right away. She ended up going it alone.
"I was taking everything, exhausting my savings, my retirement, every asset I had," Bailey said. "When it started making a profit, I had to pay stuff back. When I finally made enough money for the banks to give me a loan, it was too late."
Bailey closed her business and went to work for a big law firm to replenish her finances. She saved up enough to reopen Bailey Law Office in 2016.
"It's year three, and the business is growing," she said. "But I've spent so much money to get here."
Bailey's experience is far from unusual.
Many small business owners across Greater Cincinnati struggle to get the resources and support they need to grow their companies and create jobs.
Eric Kearney wants to change that. That's why he is launching a new plan called "Partner, Focus, Support, and Lead!" The goal is to make Greater Cincinnati a leader in growing small businesses, said Kearney, the president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce.
"So that Cincinnati is synonymous with small business growth and development as it is with Graeter's or Skyline Chili or the Black Family Reunion," Kearney said.
The plan consists of 35 ideas in six parts, and Kearney stressed that it's still a work in progress. Starting today, he will begin using Meetup.com to schedule meetings with small groups of people who want to discuss the plan and other ideas to make the region a better place for small businesses to start and grow.
And while the African American Chamber is focused on growing black-owned businesses, Kearney said the ideas in the plan are designed to help small businesses of all kinds.
"The overall goal is to start a discussion about making Cincinnati number one in terms of small business growth and development," he said.
‘The NFL combine'
John Moore saw a draft of the plan a few months ago and was impressed with Kearney's approach.
"It showed a broader scope, which isn't necessarily what is normally spoken about in the world of minority business," said Moore, who is chairman of the African American Chamber and president of Moore Air, an HVAC services company. "It was more about being an active participant and being very deliberate in how we engage. Most studies are a reminder that something is not ideal, but then what? This stuff emphasizes the ‘then what.'"
The six parts of Kearney's plan are to:
• Create industry clusters to drive growth
• Simplify the certification process
• Create incentives for small businesses to locate in this region
• Focus on small businesses with potential for growth
• Lower taxes and regulation on small businesses
• Make the entrepreneurial ecosystem more efficient
Some of the ideas include creating workforce programs around defined industry clusters and making sure that the certification that a small business receives from one government entity can be used for other government entities, too.
The way the systems work now, governments have their own certification processes for businesses owned by women and minorities or for small businesses regardless of race or gender.
Simplifying that process appealed to Moore, who said he and other business owners end up spending lots of time and money putting together the paperwork that the city of Cincinnati, the state of Ohio and other governments require for their separate certification processes.
"There is a reciprocity with the state of Ohio, but it's not granted at the same time," Moore said. "While you're waiting for reciprocity, opportunities are passing you by."
In addition, businesses that are seeking certification have to provide private financial information that larger businesses that have been working with governments for years don't have to provide, he said.
"It's the NFL combine. It's a week of just total evaluation in hopes that you might get drafted," Moore said. "But there's businesses that have been doing business with the city forever who never have had to go to the combine. They have a conversation with the coach or the general manager and they're automatically on the team."
Kearney's plan addresses the problems that Bailey encountered, too.
The power of working together
One of the ideas is to "repair rather than reject." When banks, credit unions and other financial institutions reject loan applications submitted by small businesses or entrepreneurs, the plan suggests the should automatically refer those businesses to a chamber of commerce that can offer access to "capital classes, credit-building assistance and other business support."
The plan also suggests that the region should have a list of non-traditional lending sources that are available to business owners whose loan applications get rejected.
There are ideas for incentives, too.
For example, Kearney suggests that the city of Cincinnati could cut its 2.1 percent payroll tax for small businesses with fewer than 25 employees. The tax would be cut for the first year such companies hire a new employee. And the same strategy could be used by other cities, too.
Another idea: Governments could provide property tax abatements for the rehabilitation of facilities that are being used as space for small businesses and companies owned by women and minorities. The only portion that wouldn't be abated is the portion paid to school districts.
John J. Williams, a solo attorney in town, has small business owners as clients and said he thinks many of the ideas could be helpful.
"I have six or seven small business clients, and their issues range from lack of adequate help to financing," he said. "A lot of the small businesses, it's just a matter of taking care of some of the basic things so you can sustain in times of trouble."
That's what Taren Kinebrew found. Her Sweet Petit Desserts business grew from being home-based into a storefront on Race Street in late 2013.
She struggled initially with marketing and getting the customers she needed to make the business work.
"When you work a corporate job, you know your paycheck is coming every two weeks," she said. "When you're a business owner, you don't know week-to-week what it's going to look like depending on what your business is."
Still, Kinebrew said, it has been worth the struggle to keep her business going, and she is looking ahead to better time and a possible expansion.
"It has been a very tough road, but I feel like now I'm on the upswing," Kinebrew said. "They say it takes five to seven years if you make it, if you can hang in there. That is the truth to no end. You have to pay your dues."
Kearney, a small business owner himself, said he understands that. He believes this new plan could make those dues a bit easier to pay for entrepreneurs that want to build something that, ultimately, will benefit the community as a whole.
"It's kind of getting everybody to work together and to understand that we've got a great opportunity, and we should seize it," Kearney said. "We've got a lot of great organizations that are doing great things, but I don't think it's as organized or easy for entrepreneurs to navigate that system."
Kearney noted that Cincinnati didn't make the cut with its bid for Amazon's second headquarters and said that shows that the region has work to do.
"Maybe it's time to do a little bit of examination and develop some new ideas about how we can move forward," he said. "And let's make it a community discussion and include everybody."
More information about the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce is available online. For more information about the plan, call the chamber at (513) 751-9900.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and 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 20 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.