Popular, busy -- successful? Growing entrepreneur engine Mortar tries to measure its impact

Inner-city facilitator 'a bit overwhelmed'
Popular, busy -- successful? Growing entrepreneur engine Mortar tries to measure its impact
Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 17, 2016

CINCINNATI -- In the words of the poet Robert Browning, Mortar’s reach has exceeded its grasp.

In 2014, three young men -- Derrick Braziel, William Thomas and Allen Woods -- started Mortar, a business accelerator in Over-the-Rhine aimed at making entrepreneurs of poor, inner-city residents.

They wanted to reach those overlooked in the neighborhood’s renaissance. How well have they succeeded? That’s a question Mortar is still trying to answer.

On the plus side, there’s this: Mortar plans to hire a fifth full-time employee and has begun its seventh class for entrepreneurs.

Seventy-nine people have started one of Mortar’s nine-to-12-week entrepreneurship classes, and all but five have graduated. That’s a dropout rate of 6 percent.

When they started offering classes, the founders were expecting a dropout rate of 20-25 percent, Braziel said.

One of the surprises of running Mortar has been how quickly interest has grown and how intense the demand has been, Thomas said.

“This has taken on a life of its own, and that’s a good problem to have,” Braziel said. “But we’re also a bit overwhelmed.”

There’s a long waiting list of applicants for future classes. Some 250 people have signed up, with only 79 getting into classes. That’s a placement rate of about 30 percent.

What’s keeping that percentage down? A lack of facilitators to help teach the classes. Right now, they are taught by Woods and volunteer businesspeople, who also receive a small stipend, Braziel said.

The long-term hope is to have facilitators manage all the classes, to free up Woods’ time.

The shortage of facilitators hasn’t discouraged Mortar from moving forward with plans to open offices in other neighborhoods.

The city of Cincinnati has committed $500,0000 to help the nonprofit Walnut Hills Reinvestment Foundation renovate the Durner Building at 2453 Gilbert Ave. The foundation plans to make some of the building’s 8,000 square feet of office space available to Mortar for classes and as co-working space for fledgling businesses, foundation development officer Joe Sandmann said.

“Walnut Hills is predominantly African-American and low-income,” Sandmann said. “We have some programs we hope will lead to economic inclusion. (Mortar’s) programming fits with what we are trying to do perfectly in Walnut Hills.”

Rehabbing the building is expected to take about two years, he said, at an as-yet undetermined cost. Meanwhile, the foundation is letting Mortar hold classes in another building, a vacant storefront at 915 E. McMillan St. where the foundation has its offices, Sandmann said.

Mortar is also moving ahead with plans to open a third location in the West End, which kicked off with the Morsels of Mortar Food Festival on Labor Day, which included dishes prepared by Mortar graduates such as Aunt Flora’s House of Soul.

The idea was to show West End residents that there are opportunities to become entrepreneurs, Braziel said, and to get them interested in Mortar classes.

Management has also talked about opening a fourth location in Avondale, Thomas said.

“We want Cincinnati to be the most equitable city in the world,” he said.

“We’re pretty ambitious,” Braziel added.

And they’re not resting on their laurels. They’re examining what they’re doing, asking questions such as, “How can we measure the difference we make in our clients’ lives?”

That’s a little hard to gauge, Braziel said. Traditional measures such as jobs created and revenue generated don’t always capture the positive changes that clients say Mortar has made in their lives, he said.

That’s why Mortar has asked James Canfield, a University of Cincinnati professor of social work, and Covington startup Wyzerr, which makes a survey tool for businesses, to help it evaluate those classes.

Mortar has chosen four traits of successful entrepreneurs that it wants to measure in its students, Canfield said: an entrepreneur’s mentality of confidence, perseverance and grit; connections with the business community; knowledge of how a business works; and access to needed resources.

“What we are really doing is looking at what Mortar is on a personal level for the clients … what (Mortar is) actually changing,” he said.

Wyzerr CEO and co-founder Natasia Malaihollo, who is on the board of Mortar, said Wyzerr is creating a survey of past and present students to gather data on what Mortar’s done well (to support its grant and funding applications) and what needs improvement (to inform decisions about future programs and key hires).

This kind of self-examination is not something that every nonprofit does, Sandmann said, but it’s something Mortar does very well.

“Mortar is being progressive in this,” he said.