5 Ways Akron is Redefining Entrepreneurship

By Heather Roszczyk

Heather Roszczyk works for the Fund for Our Economic Future, an alliance of funders who pool their resources to advance economic growth and increase access to opportunity for all people of Northeast Ohio.

Akron, Ohio, like many legacy cities, experienced a rougher-than-average blow with the economic downturn. But with the help of a new generation of entrepreneurs, the city is also rebounding at a stronger rate than some of its neighbors. Here’s a look into what makes Akron’s entrepreneurship scene stand out and which local programs are supporting its growth.

1. You don’t have to carry a hockey stick.

For decades, the word “entrepreneur” has been associated with highly scalable startups; tech-oriented businesses that were deemed successful when their profit line mimicked the proverbial hockey stick. While Akron has plenty of exciting tech startups, we also celebrate the entrepreneurs whose financial projections have more in common with an escalator (that is, a slow, steady upward slope) than a piece of sporting equipment.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of an entrepreneur is “one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” This means that the owners of the clothing boutiques, coffee shops, rock climbing gyms, salons, comic book shops, yoga studios and all of our neighborhood businesses that opened their doors in the last few years can wear the mantle of entrepreneurship just as proudly as their app-developing neighbors.

2. We’re not all white males.

In a 2013 working paper by Ross Levine and Yona Rubinstein, the authors noted that “entrepreneurs” are a type. They found that entrepreneurs are “disproportionately white, male, and highly educated.” And while we are extremely proud of our local entrepreneurs that fit that description, our spectrum is broad and welcoming. One of our most exciting tech startups, Komae, was founded by two women, and one of the hottest tables in town, Nepali Kitchen, is owned and operated by a Bhutanese immigrant. Local support organizations like the Women’s Network, the International Institute of Akron, and the Urban League celebrate entrepreneurs’ differences while providing assistance to many different types of businesses.

3. Artists are entrepreneurs too.

In many places, artists - musicians, thespians, and visual artists alike - are considered a different breed. But we recognize that whether they’re selling their paintings or filling tables at the local jazz club, artists are running a business. Organizations like Crafty Mart provide artists and artisans a venue for selling their goods to the public in multi-venue craft fairs that see more than $100,00 in sales for makers each year.

Nicole Mullet, executive director of ArtsNow, an advocacy and backbone organization for Summit County arts says, "Creative professionals are redefining what it means to be an artist. According to the Kauffman Foundation about 34% of US artists are self-employed and part of a burgeoning category of creative entrepreneurs who are generating economic activity, creating jobs, and emerging as a force in local and national economies."

4. We believe in due diligence.

Steve Jobs’ philosophy, “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them” may work for one in a million. But for the other 999,999 of us, homework is key and can put you ahead of the competition. Prior to opening Sweet Mary’s Bakery, Mary Hospodarsky interviewed dozens of workers in the blocks surrounding her downtown Akron location. She was surprised to learn that quiche was the most-desired menu item; she had not planned to include it on her menu. But she listened to her future customers’ demands and today it remains one of her best-sellers.

Financial projections, customer discovery, and business plans rarely make it into the blockbuster movie, but they’re a smart way to approach a new endeavor. Organizations like the Small Business Development Center, and the University of Akron’s ICorps program and Small Entrepreneur and Economic Development (SEED) Legal Clinic are here to help.

5. We get by with a little help from our friends.

While other cities conform to the popular “six degrees of separation” theory, the Akron network is more like two degrees - and we’re not afraid to use it. Rather than viewing one another as competition, small business owners espouse the “rising tides lift all boats” idiom and are eager to give the next entrepreneur a hand up. So while Cristina and Richelle of Not Yo’ Daddy’s would never share their secret hot sauce recipe, they’re more than willing to divulge how they found the kitchen space they rent and which pop-up markets have given them the most bang for their buck. It’s the same attitude that shaped Launch League’s microcommunities for tech startups. Whether you’re into front end dev or design, you can meet up with like-minded folks to talk shop and swap tips.

Discussion

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3 Comments

  1. Thanks Heather Roszczyk for this inside view of Akron’s factors of successful economic development. The approach sounds solid. I’d be curious to know if Akron’s entrepreneurs who collaborate (5) are common in other cities? Is this part of a Nation-wide trend of how new-school entrepreneurs are doing business?

    Reply
  2. Great summary and insights, Heather! Naturally, I’m grateful for the arts shout out. Since moving here, I’ve found that akron has a leg up on many similar and larger cities because of how creative the local population is. That’s a powerful muscle to exercise, and I think it helps our businesses and community create highly differentiated approaches and solutions to different challenges and opportunities. While it’s important to differentiate your business and offerings, I’ve found that this community powerfully embraces purposeful and meaningful differentiation. This is helping us shift narratives and find answers to questions that people haven’t thought to ask yet. Akron is on the up!

    Reply
  3. Great question, Abra! It’s one I don’t have a firm answer to, but I suspect it’s at least somewhat unique to Akron. We benefit from a combination of being a smaller city (which I believe automatically leads to more collaboration), having what some have deemed “Ohio Nice” – that midwestern friendliness and willingness to help, and a groundswell of boomerangers intent on helping Akron be the type of city they want to live in. It’s a really exciting time to be an Akronite!

    Reply

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