In the rebirth of Over-the-Rhine, with its bright shiny storefronts, smart restaurants and high-rent living spaces, our neighbor Derrick Braziel sees huge heaps of work to be done on behalf of those forgotten in the renaissance.
With partners William Thomas and Allen Woods, Derrick has undertaken that work with a non-profit they call MORTAR, all caps. Headquartered in the heart of OTR on the 1300 block of Vine Street, MORTAR is engaged in helping people from minority backgrounds grow as entrepreneurs. Derrick calls the people he serves “nontraditional entrepreneurs.”
He describes the thinking behind the name, MORTAR:
“Going through this community or that, you’ll always see the brick. But you might miss the mortar that holds the bricks together. It’s the people – the bakers, clothiers, shop owners and assorted other entrepreneurs who make up the fabric of any community. We’re here to inspire the people who’ve always been here, to help them see others who look like them running businesses of their own.
“We want to identify entrepreneurs we know have talent so they can participate in the rejuvenation of their neighborhoods. It’s not about diversity for diversity’s sake. It’s about helping people compete.”
“What better place than Over-the-Rhine for this work?”
Two engines drive MORTAR’s mission. The first is a series of nine-week business accelerator courses offering one-on-one business coaching through SCORE, short for Service Corps of Retired Executives, and access to free legal services at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
MORTAR also provides budding entrepreneurs with venues for testing their concepts in real-world environments via two pop-up shops, one next door to its OTR offices, another in Walnut Hills.
“The shops are business laboratories – a low-cost way to get going. The shops also are meant to inspire. The hope is that if someone walks past, they’ll see someone who looks like them running a business.”
MORTAR launched in the spring of 2014. The first cycle for the accelerator course drew 20 applicants. The number for the third and most recent round climbed to 70. The class meets once a week for three hours. Derrick describes the curriculum as “very rigorous.”
The focus of one of Mortar’s early success stories is a woman named Nyah, pronounced Nie-yuh.
“She was shelterless — she would say it that way — and struggling to find work,” Derrick says.
“She loves to cook and wanted to open a vegan-vegetarian Jamaican soul food restaurant. So she applied to our course. I knew she was a star in the making because each week, she’d bring food; everything from traditional Jamaican dishes to her own version of Cincinnati chili.
“She gave her pitch at a pitch night event we organized. A guy there, Keith Stradford, liked her idea and invested in her business, which she named Jamerisol. She has since opened a stand at Findlay Market and, most recently, has created a line of coconut water-based juices that’s getting interest from a serious national grocery chain.”
It’s the kind of story Derrick says people should hear. “We hear too many stories about African-Americans being murdered or some crime or other. We need to hear more positive stories where someone is doing something positive in the community, lifting themselves out of poverty.”
The background on Derrick is this: His parents grew up poor in northern Ohio, became the first in their families to graduate from college and were able to give him opportunities others in his extended family didn’t have. He blew out his knee as a running back for the Wittenberg University football team. Up to then, it was pretty much all about Derrick.
“Then I went on a mission trip to L.A. and saw, basically for the first time, what urban poverty looked like. I decided to dedicate my life to helping people who live in places like that change the trajectory of their lives.”
He cites a quote that has special meaning for him, so that we might more fully understand what moves him forward. The quote comes from noted paleontologist and science historian Stephen Gould:
“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweat shops.”
For Derrick, MORTAR is an obsession. “It’s been incredible. I’ve never worked harder, never been happier … People talk about this idea of burning out. To me, burning out is the norm. If you love what you do, you’re going to give it everything. Yeah, I’m tired. But I’m going to wake up tomorrow and do the same thing all day long.”
On the day of our conversation, he was painting the Walnut Hills pop-up shop. We were wrapping up when a street vendor carrying a tray of essential oils and other products, his head sprouting a thicket of dreadlocks, appeared in Mortar’s doorway.
He asked Derrick if he had a moment to talk about how he might help his small enterprise take the next step.
“Sure do,” Derrick said. “Please, come in.”
His plan is working.