Access Granted

By Allen Woods, Cofounder and CEO of MORTAR Cincinnati


Even if you haven’t experienced it personally, we’ve all seen that scene in a movie or TV show where the main character shows up to the city’s new, trendy nightclub - you know, the one where everyone who’s made it inside so far throughout the night is excessively beautiful, talented, and rich with great skin, bright smiles, and luxurious hair. The awkwardly likable character (who is usually none of those other things) hops out of a cab with two friends excited & on a mission to be one of the in-crowd. After standing in line for a while, contemplating every life decision made in recent years, the loveable band of misfits finally make it up the sidewalk to the front of the line where they stand slightly shorter than face-to-face with the club’s bouncer who obviously makes the most of his gym membership. He looks the group up and down, frowns disapprovingly, tucks his clipboard under his arm, and uses his middle finger to push his completely unnecessary post-dusk sunglasses up the bridge of his nose. Through his stale, vanilla protein shake scented breath, he says that the club is overcapacity and dismissively mentions that the club next door always has plenty of room & might better suit their needs. He harshly turns away, soon recognizing the stylishly dressed, young celebrity exiting the blacked-out SUV with entourage in tow, excitedly greets the crew of seven, mentioning how much he loves the new album, and lifts the velvet rope letting the entire group in without hesitation. As the door inches shut, you faintly hear the DJ announcing the arrival of the crew & the bouncer reconfigures the brass hook on the stanchion. He returns to his previous posture, ignoring the group he’d just denied, and “scene”.

Every day in America, this scenario plays out similarly in the entrepreneurship world with a different type of gatekeeper. It could be the developer or landlord who refuses to sign a lease with the unknown business with the concept that she doesn’t quite understand. Or maybe it’s the loan officer who determines that you need to bring in twice as many documents as the previous business that just bounced out of the door with their approval paperwork in hand like an American Idol contestant gripping a post-audition golden ticket. It could be the elite business club that denied your membership though you showed up overly qualified and dressed to impress. Sometimes these barriers of entry are connected strands of the same white supremacy culture that has been embedded into the tapestry of this country since before the first smallpox blanket was distributed to Native Americans. Other times, it could be because the entrepreneur in question was truly not ready, or the right fit for the opportunity. Anything is possible.

No, really. I believe that anything is possible. Since co-founding MORTAR nearly eight years ago, I’ve made it my personal goal to remove as many barriers to entry for the nearly 500 entrepreneurs who’ve gone through our programs across the country. The majority of these entrepreneurs are Black & in most cases, they’re also women. By choosing to focus on minoritized entrepreneurs, we are enabling & empowering them to move beyond the velvet ropes that society has often put in place to limit the success of these groups. While it is often an uphill battle, we believe that it’s a worthwhile cause that will have a profound impact on our participants, as well as their families, communities, and legacies.

Since 2014, we’ve made sure that the locations for our in-person cohorts were conveniently located (often on the bus line), and in the communities that need us most. We’ve always  provided free snacks for each cohort realizing that many of our participants are coming to our sessions after work & before a late dinner.  We even recently collaborated with Queen’s Village, a local nonprofit serving Black moms, and we were able to make sure that free childcare was provided so that participants could focus on the activities taking place in the room while giving them a bit of solitude. At the start of the pandemic, we quickly learned how to deliver a virtual cohort experience for our Academy, and in turn, also shared this knowledge with the six other cities that operate MORTAR sites so that they could seamlessly be able to continue to provide services for new & seasoned businesses who were trying to better understand the new realities for small businesses during an extremely challenging period of time.

We are continuing to work to make our programming even easier to access, and we are building a team to bring it all together. We’re not done yet. So, no. We will not turn around and go away, we’re ready to fight for everything we came for… don’t make me knock your little clipboard on the ground.

Burton D. Morgan Foundation has provided grant support to the MORTAR at Bounce program in Akron since its inception in 2020.

Learn more about Allen Woods