This is part two of the story on a new business accelerator founded in Cincinnati, Ohio. Part one, released in August, provided background on the program designed to assist minority and women-led startup companies. In this Part Two, we wrap up the inaugural cohort and share the experiences of one of the graduating companies.
Ohio recognizes the importance of diversity and inclusion in a successful entrepreneurial environment, and promotes these principles by supporting initiatives like BLK Hack, i.c.stars and, now the Hillman Accelerator in Cincinnati. Setting up underrepresented entrepreneurs for success is Hillman’s sole mission, and they’ve just graduated their first cohort of up-and-coming companies.
“A few of us who had formed the Black Founders Network here in Cincinnati looked around and realized we were missing a dedicated program for underrepresented groups in entrepreneurship in this entire region,” said Candice Matthews, co-founder and Executive Director of the accelerator. “Entrepreneurship is hard enough in the first place. When you feel like the cards are stacked against you from the start, the challenge can seem impossible. Nobody should feel like that.”
Promoting ethnic minority and women-led startups is not just a fair practice, it’s also a smart business strategy. While less than one percent of venture-capital-backed company founders are African American, 12 percent are Asian, and female founders receive only seven percent of venture capital funding. And evidence indicates female and minority-led businesses are more financially successful.
The accelerator’s inaugural 16-week cohort included SoLo Funds, a mobile-lending platform designed to disrupt the payday and title loan industry with peer-to-peer, short-term cash loans. Interest rates from SoLo Funds are agreed upon between users, making them friendlier than those of exploitative payday and title loan companies, and users increase their FICO credit scores with timely repayments. The innovative company was created by a driven young founder named Travis Holoway, who was introduced to the program by a mentor and friend, Rodney Williams, founder and CEO of LISNR.
“I looked at the program and bought into the concept right away. Everything I feel about representation in tech was clear in the founding principles of Hillman,” said Holoway, SoLo Funds’ founder and CEO. “It was obvious Hillman shared my same values and wanted to see me, and entrepreneurs like me, succeed. As minority and female founders, we know we have to earn what we get. Everyone’s so driven to succeed and there’s a real sense of pride in what we do.”
When asked about the importance of a program like Hillman, Holoway didn’t hesitate to expound on the critical work of the accelerator:
“Facts are facts, and the facts right now are simply that we are underrepresented. People of color and women just aren’t accurately represented in entrepreneurship. There’s no shortage of great ideas and concepts, people just need to know they can do it. Hillman inspires that sort of hope.”
Benefits of the program include not only investment, but other early-stage startup support:
“They helped introduce us to the right people at the right time, which is so important. Building a company is a lot about meeting people at the right time. If you’re not in a position to receive help from someone, it’s a wasted opportunity,” said Holoway. “Hillman helped us reach milestones with the right mentors, and they provide free office space for a year after we graduate. For a new company, that’s huge too.”
Holoway feels inspired by the direction of the accelerator and urges anyone interested to get involved:
“The sky’s the limit here. No other full-time program in the Midwest is as focused on these specific underrepresented groups. This is a totally unique program, and if you’ve got an idea for a business you want to explore, do it with Hillman. The network is so vast. They really care about whether you make it or not.”
The other two companies in the inaugural cohort included:
- Warmilu: a non-electric warming technology company, specializing in manufacturing a safe, reusable heat pack called the InstaWarmer. The InstaWarmer is a durable and reusable heat pack, that can generate safely regulated warmth in seconds. With the simple click of the disk, the pack begins to warm up and stays warm for 3-6 hours.
- Ilerasoft: a software that centralizes a health system’s medical equipment data on one platform to increase utilization, automate FDA safety recalls and help health systems share equipment across facilities.
Hillman was founded as a public-private venture supported by Ohio Third Frontier, the University of Cincinnati and QEY Capital, as well as by Cintrifuse, CincyTech and The Brandery, all southwest regional partners of Ohio Third Frontier. The idea came out of the Black Founders Network, a monthly meetup of founders from Cincinnati companies such as LISNR, ConnXus, QEY Capital (founded by former NFL Linebacker Dhani Jones) and Matthews’ Hello Parent. It was made possible in part due to Ohio’s continued commitment to lead the charge in diversity and inclusion in tech startups. Hillman is located at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on the Ohio River riverfront.
The Hillman Accelerator is now accepting applications for its second cohort.