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The Takeoff: New hope for female, minority entrepreneurs alive, well with MORTAR Covington

By Abby Ober
Program Director, Blue North

Ask anyone who has done so, and you’re likely to get the same answer: Starting a business at any time is a challenge. In the wake of COVID-19, that challenge may seem insurmountable for aspiring business owners today. But that’s why organizations like Blue North and MORTAR Covington exist to help entrepreneurs prepare for takeoff and get their ideas off the ground.

Starting just over nine months ago, MORTAR Covington faced its own challenges in scaling up, but still managed to help build a business model and provide resources and funding for several startups, setting these local businesses up for future success.

Abby Ober

MORTAR Covington is a collaboration between Renaissance Covington – a 501(c)3 nonprofit that works to provide economic sustainability and improve the health of the city’s business community – and MORTAR Cincinnati. Unfamiliar with the MORTAR Cincinnati program? Launched in 2014, MORTAR is an entrepreneur academy that, over the course of 15 weeks, helps startups and young, expanding companies learn the ins and outs of owning a business.

Like the Cincinnati program, MORTAR Covington launched with the same framework in mind: Provide professional mentorships, accounting wisdom, marketing, branding and distribution guidance over the course of 15 weeks.

MORTAR Covington Program Manager Jillian Schneider says the initiative is an acknowledgment of the city as, “one of the most diverse if not the most diverse within the Northern Kentucky region.”

“Renaissance Covington saw a need to make sure all populations within this community have the same opportunity to take advantage of Covington’s entrepreneurial growth,” says Schneider. “A great number of small businesses have opened in the last five years. We wanted to make sure the underserved communities in our city’s business community could have a means to provide them with the help they need to get started and be successful. This is why Renaissance Covington thought the MORTAR program would be the right fit.”

A global pandemic, however, tends to alter plans – and such was the case for MORTAR Covington and its five initial participants at the start of the program this past August. Like many of the small businesses the initiative was designed to help, Schneider, the program’s cohorts and facilitators adjusted week-to-week, often meeting by phone and virtually. Working remotely didn’t derail programming. Cohorts still received expert advice on topics such as licenses, permits and accounting, the latter coming courtesy of MORTAR Covington partner Glenmar CPAs.

The lesson in all this? Having a good team around you is key, regardless of whether you’re a startup or a program designed to help them succeed.

“I was never worried and here’s the reason why: I felt like from the beginning I had such a strong support system both from Renaissance Covington and MORTAR Cincinnati. It’s kind of like ‘We’re all in this together, let’s make this happen no matter what’ – that couldn’t happen without a strong a support team,” says Schneider, who at the time had just recently moved back to the U.S. after working on a similar initiative in Peru. “Replicating that support system both internally and externally definitely helped all parties involved.”

The first MORTAR Covington initiative culminated on Nov. 17 with “Life’s a P!tch (pitch),” an online event featuring cohorts presenting their businesses Shark Tank-style before a socially-distanced panel of judges and an audience via Facebook. Several factors were used to judge each of the cohort’s presentations, including overall feasibility, ability to deliver, question answering ability and “wow” factor.

East to Vest at the Grow Corner at Covington’s Farmers Market

Shannon Glover, owner of Legendary Eatz, walked away with the evening’s top prize as the Judge’s Choice winner: $2,500 in seed money as sponsored by Republic Bank with a package featuring Square technology and marketing services from Covington’s Icon Marketing. Michel’e Tevis, owner of Berries And More, was named the People’s Choice winner, taking home $1,500 in seed money via sponsor BB&T/Truist.

With nine participants now involved in MORTAR Covington’s second initiative, Schneider says the organization is setting its sights on applications for its third class this August. But before that happens, MORTAR Covington will introduce another venture: CovGrow Corner. Nestled within the popular Covington Farmer’s Market at Roebling Point, CovGrow Corner will provide a space for MORTAR Covington entrepreneurs and alumni to test their products/services and gain brand recognition in a real-world setting. The free space will feature a different vendor twice a month through August.

“If you don’t necessarily know how to start, where to start or what resources you need, we’re here to help. We really take a guided approach from the start,” says Schneider. “The first year has been very inspiring. We’ve been able to work with some incredible entrepreneurs and really get a feel for what people need while building community and how we can kind of move forward – this past year has been our building block.”

If MORTAR Covington’s first year has proven anything, it is that our region is rich with talent that can take on any challenge even in the most difficult times.

Blue North mades it their mission to empower startups and small businesses. Blue North
welcomes any questions and encourages small business owners and entrepreneurs to contact them here. This column by Blue North is a regular feature of The NKyTribune.

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