“I have an obsessive belief that entrepreneurship can be and is a tool to rebuild communities,” said Derrick Braziel.
Braziel was at the Neighborhood Economics gathering in November 2015, telling the participants about why he and two others founded Mortar in 2014. Like many accelerators, Mortar provides entrepreneurs with a set business course curriculum, access to technical assistance, one-on-one business coaching, free legal counseling, and the opportunity to pitch their ideas in front of friends, family and investors.
Unlike most accelerators, Mortar’s model focuses on entrepreneurs who either live in the same neighborhood or want to do business with entrepreneurs from that neighborhood — and they focus on Cincinnati neighborhoods and entrepreneurs that are the most challenging to support. Neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine, a community facing rapid gentrification, and entrepreneurs like vegan and vegetarian soul food chef Nyah Higgins, who was a homeless grandmother in November 2014. Higgins, too, spoke at that 2015 gathering.
“I went from homeless to hopeful,” she said. “I am surrounded by angels. I am surrounded by people that believe in me as an individual, as a human being.”
Braziel was one of those angels. At Higgins’ pitch day, after going through Mortar’s nine-week curriculum, she convinced one investor to take her on, someone who might have previously passed her by on the street and never would have considered her a worthy investment. By August 2015, she was catering events and serving customers in Cincinnati’s popular Findlay Market, right in Over-the-Rhine, where Higgins shopped often as a child.
“If we want to create vibrant neighborhoods, we need to ensure that entrepreneurs like Nyah are strung with the resources necessary for success. We need to change our framework for who is considered to be an investment-ready entrepreneur,” Braziel said.
Sitting in the audience that day were activist and social entrepreneur Jessica Norwood and impact investor Kevin Doyle Jones (who also organized the gathering). What they both saw in Mortar was the ideal partner to explore solutions to a problem each had been examining separately for some years, at that point: the lack of “friends and family” capital among communities of color, especially black communities. Norwood and Jones have since launched The Runway Project, connecting Braziel and a few other leaders in other cities who all happened to be tackling the same problem.
The problem, retold in numbers: The average cost to start a business from scratch is $30,000, and many people look to those who are closest to them for help. The median net worth of white households in the U.S. is $141,900. Black households have a median net worth of $11,000. Those are two very different pools of cash to tap.
“Supporting Derrick, linking him to other people who are fighting similar things in other communities, helps us have the conversation about how this early money is missing and how we will not ever get to the kind of communities that we say we want if we don’t plug up this hole, if we don’t plug up this runway with a lot more strength than we have right now,” says Norwood, who is currently on a fellowship with the Nathan Cummings Foundation to study and work on this issue.
The “runway” symbolizes more than money. It’s also about the kinds of relationships and connections that are historically associated with this level of capital. At a certain point in time, Norwood explains, there were African-American churches that built institutions, or historically black colleges that helped to support businesses. In her work as founder of the Emerging ChangeMakers Network, Norwood heard numerous oral histories of black business owners financing other businesses on their main street areas and other economic corridors and did so mostly because they were economically segregated.
“Once we shifted out of legally economically segregated communities, right around the 1970s, we never thought about what systems were not replaced when that happened. We just say let’s everybody move on,” says Norwood. “We’re going to have to figure out a way to recreate that in this day and time.”
In the Runway Project’s evolving vision, recreating that starts with people like the three leaders they’ve connected so far, Derrick Braziel and his Mortar co-founders in Cincinnati, Jason Towns in Washington, D.C., and Rodney Foxworth in Baltimore. They’re also in talks with leaders in Newark, New Jersey, and Oakland and Indianapolis.
Norwood and Jones agreed to work with Towns and Foxworth in part because they, like Braziel, see entrepreneurship as a tool for community development, as a bulwark against gentrification. “All of those folks who are sitting in the places that are being gentrified, and are trying to hold businesses that are moving in accountable, trying to hold policymakers accountable, and are trying to help communities take advantage of what is now changing in their areas, they need to be networked,” Norwood says.
“We found people working on the same problem and we wanted them to do it together,” adds Jones. “It’s not in a hidebound structure of a program, it’s these people who help these entrepreneurs using different tools. They all sort of created their own thing, they’re all startups in their own way. They aren’t really beholden to previous models.”
They each have ambitious visions. Braziel sees Mortar creating cohorts of its entrepreneurs in every Cincinnati neighborhood. Towns wants to build a $10 million seed fund for black tech entrepreneurs. Foxworth is raising a $30 million philanthropic evergreen seed fund to invest in entrepreneurs in marginalized communities.
With the Runway Project, Norwood and Jones are building their model as they go along. Besides connecting the local leaders to each other to discuss things like how to endorse entrepreneurs for funding via Kiva Zip, the Runway Project is working with other partners on a national level to come up with tools and resources that will be useful on a local level. Jones, best known as the founder of SOCAP, an annual Bay Area gathering of impact investors and social entrepreneurs from around the world, is drawing upon his experiences and networks from a career in social impact and mission-driven investing.
One such tool they’re exploring is a certificate of deposit (CD) that would go to invest in entrepreneurs in a specific neighborhood. They’ve taken inspiration from models like Calvert Foundation’s Ours to Own campaigns and Self-Help Credit Union’s Women and Children Term Certificate.
The Runway Project CD would create a pool of capital that Braziel, Towns, Foxworth and more could leverage locally to augment the programs they’ve already got going, whether it’s Mortar, or Towns’ Village Capital DC or Foxworth’s Invested Impact. As Norwood and Jones envision it, the local CD pool of capital would help get more entrepreneurs like Nyah Higgins into these other programs that are or will soon be up and running. Each entrepreneur wouldn’t get a lot of money from each local CD pool of capital, but the amount isn’t as important as the timing.
“This is the one thing that keeps getting missed in the story,” Norwood says. “It’s a very obscure, small piece, it doesn’t seem like it would register or create as much of the ripple effect that it does, but it’s the beginning, it’s the genesis, it’s the part of money that tells people ‘I’m with you. I believe in you.’”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.