Franklin County is engaging with national non-profit learning network Forward Cities on a two-year pilot program to develop entrepreneurs and small businesses in underserved communities in Central Ohio. In partnership with the Franklin County commissioners, the Columbus Foundation, the Columbus Partnership, Rev1 Ventures, and Forward Cities, local entrepreneur and founder of Zora’s House, L.C. Johnson will lead the efforts locally as Director of Community Entrepreneurship.
Launched in 2014, Forward Cities is a national network comprised of more than two dozen communities, including Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, and Dayton, that accelerates equitable opportunity in innovation and entrepreneurship, and fosters shared learning among the participating cities.
“Franklin County’s robust economic growth has transformed our community into Ohio’s largest and most successful,” said Board of Commissioners President Marilyn Brown. “In order to sustain our growth and ensure everyone shares in our prosperity, we must take an intentional approach for inclusive growth that reaches every resident, on every street, in every neighborhood.”
The goal of the program is to identify local assets and leverage national best practices to connect small businesses in struggling neighborhoods with the resources they need.
Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce says that when starting a business, having a good idea and working hard aren’t enough. It takes funding, a little bit of luck, and help along the way.
“But those things aren’t equally available to everyone,” Boyce says.
He cites statistics that one in every seven white families has a net worth of over $1 million. For Hispanic and black families, that statistic is one in every 50, which means minority business owners often don’t have the access to education, family support and safety net many white entrepreneurs do.
Furthermore, “Minority-owned businesses are much less likely to be approved for small business loans and when they are approved, the loans are for lower amounts, often with higher interest rates,” Boyce says.
Closing these gaps and providing access to resources is not just a matter of building businesses, it’s about economic investment and mobility. Forward Cities CEO Christopher Gergen says it’s important to not just focus on economic growth, but economic inclusion. Often times, growth comes at the expense of inclusion. Columbus is the fourth fastest growing city in the U.S., but the second most economically segregated in the country according to a study from the University of Toronto.
“We are going to be focused on building an entire community environment that uplifts and supports individuals who just largely have not had access to economic and entrepreneurial opportunities in the same way as some of their peers,” says Johnson.
Johnson will report to a new Franklin County Inclusive Entrepreneurship Council which has outlined four priorities for the program:
- Foster greater inclusion and success for minority business owners
- Increase access to the innovation economy in underserved neighborhoods
- Scale local successes that are reducing barriers to shared prosperity
- Promote greater racial equity
Forward Cities marries community-led and community-driven initiatives with institutional support – a gap that is often missing in programming that leads to inaction. Gergen is looking for quick action in columbus, aiming to deploy capital and resources within the next six to eight months.
“This work is foremost about strengthening the inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystems in neighborhoods, so we look forward to working very closely with the county, our partners, and with grassroots leaders who are representative of the communities we are looking to serve,” Gergen says.
“We want to identify types of businesses that are lacking in certain areas as potential opportunities for entrepreneurs, and help fill those gaps by connecting small businesspeople with investors,” Boyce says.
Small, locally-owned businesses not only give a community personality, but these enterprises are more likely to hire from within the neighborhood.