Building a community of entrepreneurs

August 07, 2018 | GET MORE : Social Responsibility

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MORTAR cofounder Allen Woods brings an innovative perspective to the U.S. Bank Community Advisory Committee.

To guide its Community Possible strategy, U.S. Bank last year set out to build a council of diverse leaders who are working to close the gap between people and possibility in their communities.

In short, that’s Allen Woods. 

Woods is a cofounder of Cincinnati nonprofit MORTAR, an organization that teaches entrepreneurs how to start or expand a business. 

“When we think of bricks, we think of physical spaces – but the mortar is what holds everything together,” said Woods, in a recent podcast interview. “For us, [that] is a representation of people. You can have beautiful buildings and great parks but if you don’t have people who care about those things, then it’s difficult to sustain.”

Since its founding in 2014, 175 entrepreneurs have graduated from MORTAR’s nine-week program – and among them, African Americans and women each represent a majority. Its alumni now run a wide range of businesses: a platform for neighbors to employ teenagers within their community; an indoor dog park where owners can work out with their dog; a graphic recording service that turns meeting discussion into visual art in real time; among many others.

“I want the legacy of MORTAR to be that we took a risk and told people ‘yes’ who were used to being told ‘no,’” said Woods. “We want to be known as the organization that told people their ideas were possible. And didn’t just give them lip service, but the tools, resources and connections to move forward.”

Woods aims to bring the same outlook and innovative thinking to the U.S. Bank Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which includes nonprofit leaders with a wide variety of expertise and perspective:

  • Frank Altman, CEO, Community Reinvestment Fund
  • Suzanne Anarde, Program Vice President, Rural LISC
  • Kerry Doi, President and CEO, PACE
  • Dave Glaser, President, MoFi
  • Anne Haines, President and CEO, ACCION SW
  • Dr. Eve Hall, President and CEO, Milwaukee Urban League
  • Calvin Holmes, President, Chicago Community Loan Fund
  • Daisy Lopez-Cid, President, National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals
  • Joe Neri, CEO, IFF
  • Melinda Pollack, Vice President and Denver Market Leader, Enterprise Community Partners
  • José Quiñonez, CEO, Mission Asset Fund
  • Va-Megn Thoj, Executive Director, Asian Economic Development Association
  • Tony To, Executive Director, HomeSight
  • Kevin Wilson, Director, Missouri Small Business Development Center
  • Paul Woodruff, Executive Director, Prosperity Connection
  • Allen Woods, Managing Partner and Creative Director, Mortar

“It’s really cool, for one, that U.S. Bank cares enough to ask the community what people really need – it shows a commitment to wanting to improve,” said Woods. “At MORTAR, one of the things we say is that we want to be the best at getting better.”

With input from Woods and the CAC, U.S. Bank recently launched a new online referral tool called Connect2Capital to connect small businesses who do not qualify for a loan product to a national network of Community Development Financial Institutions.

To take it a step further in serving aspiring multicultural entrepreneurs, Woods said banks need to innovate to figure out how to measure traits that don’t show up on paper, like “grit, tenacity and the hunger to succeed.”

His connection to U.S. Bank began several years ago in a professional relationship with its local community development manager, Alicia Townsend, who has coordinated bank funding to help MORTAR expand to new neighborhoods. 

This week, Townsend will be a judge at a MORTAR pitch event that is part of its graduation ceremony.

“MORTAR is a new model that focuses on engaging young entrepreneurs in a way they respond to,” said Townsend. “And Allen brings that same, refreshing perspective to our Community Advisory Committee.”

Pat Swanson is in public affairs and communications with U.S. Bank.