Expanding Opportunity In Franklin County, Ohio

December 30, 2019

by LC Johnson | Dec 30, 2019 | Insight, Solution Series

Editor’s note: This article is part of a larger series called Solution Stories, which aim to tell the story of the work Forward Cities is helping to guide in cities across the country. For additional background on the specific approach taken in communities like Franklin County, please visit the first article in the series found here.

Six successful restaurant and retail entrepreneurs will be matched with a team of high-level consultants and executives from diverse fields and given the tools to uplevel their growing businesses.

No, this isn’t a description of a new reality TV show! It is a description for a new entrepreneurial support pilot program launching in Franklin County, OH in January of 2020.

In January 2019, I became the Director of Community Entrepreneurship for Franklin County, a position created in partnership with Forward Cities—a national learning network dedicated to helping communities and regions grow and sustain more equitable entrepreneurial ecosystems—and funded by four local organizations who believe that this work is an important catalyst for our region’s growth.


For many cities, a history of red-lining, unequal development, and decisions to build highways through thriving minority communities contributed in significant ways to disparities in wealth and access to opportunities in our neighborhoods. For me, this hits even closer to home. Franklin County, Ohio is home to the city of Columbus—the fifteenth largest city in the U.S., the capital of Ohio, and one of the most economically segregated cities in the country.

One of the unique things about the work of Forward Cities is the placed-based focus of the entrepreneurial ecosystem-building work. Each community has particular strengths and unique challenges for business owners. Our approach to this work is cognizant that it takes different approaches to different situations, for instance when addressing the unique needs of a historically black community recovering from disinvestment versus a neighborhood teeming with New Americans interested in creating new, local ventures.

We began with the goal to better understand our local entrepreneurial ecosystem through this placed-based lens. We utilized a proprietary research tool, the Forward Cities Neighborhood Inclusion Compass, to analyze Census tracts across Franklin County and to determine which areas hold the greatest potential for entrepreneurial capacity-building pilots that support existing and aspiring business owners from resource-poor neighborhoods. In this process, we celebrated the diversity of different neighborhoods and reviewed a comprehensive snapshot of the local business landscapes, factoring in, among others, the number of small business loans, amount of vacant business establishments and the total jobs created by businesses younger than one year.

From a shortlist of eight neighborhoods, a coalition of entrepreneurs, funders and resource providers with strong community ties selected two: King Lincoln, an inner-city neighborhood with deep history and significance to Columbus’ African American community; and Whitehall, a small suburban municipality in Franklin County located east of Columbus, once a hub for WWII veterans and now a growing community with an emerging entrepreneurial focus.


In May of 2019, we brought together 70 entrepreneurs from these two neighborhoods and surrounding areas. Interactive discussions of participants’ lived experiences and entrepreneurial journeys paired with results from a first round of an entrepreneurial panel survey emerged the following barriers to success that many entrepreneurs have experienced:

  • Few Full-Time Entrepreneurship Pathways – Entrepreneurs struggle to find a path to turn their side-hustle business into a formal, full-time enterprise with enough gross revenue to leave existing jobs.
  • Low Awareness of Ecosystem Resources – Research Forward Cities compiled indicates that entrepreneurs have a lack of both awareness and trust of individuals, organizations, and programmatic resources that could support them start or grow their businesses.
  • Low Financial Literacy – Entrepreneurs are often not equipped with critical financial literacy skills needed for managing and stabilizing personal finances that sets them up for greater success when deciding to launch or grow a business.
  • Little Capital Access – Entrepreneurs of color and/or those with service-based or retail businesses experience difficulties finding and positioning themselves for the capital necessary for seed funding and/or growth.
  • Few Culturally Competent Mentors/Social Capital – There is a lack of qualified, culturally competent (and affordable) business mentors that can impart invaluable insights and strategies with (emerging) business owners.

Armed with this wealth of first-hand information, the local entrepreneurial allies and business owners themselves split up into working groups to think creatively how to best address the identified barriers.


The results of this community-informed process were two pilot programs that will launch in the spring of 2020.

Side Hustles to CEOs

This pilot provides part-time entrepreneurs with a case manager to deeply assess the current state of their business, help develop a plan for moving into full-time entrepreneurship, and provide personalized recommendations and referrals to existing entrepreneurial programs and supports that the entrepreneur may not otherwise be aware of.

Innovation Sprints

The second pilot provides growth-oriented small businesses with an expert site visit and strategic assessment. This entails a curated, half day strategy session focused on one to two current pain points of the business owner’s choice (e.g. marketing, operations or HR) and, at successful completion, a $5,000 cash infusion into the business.

The journey over the last months has illuminated more learning, growth, and community engagement opportunities than we could have ever hoped for. In time, we will look to scale what works, tweak what doesn’t, and continue our path to expanding the opportunity that entrepreneurship brings to a wider swath of Franklin County residents. Stay tuned for updates on the pilots in the coming months.