Movers & Shakers: Candice Matthews Brackeen on the Cincinnati business climate, lemonade stands and inclusivity in the startup world

If you’re forming a startup in the Cincinnati area, chances are you’ve run into Candice Matthews Brackeen. She’s a master networker and a staple of the area’s startup scene, and finds time to get involved in a variety of projects in addition to running the Hillman Accelerator, the Midwest’s first and only accelerator that works exclusively with women and minorities. The accelerator has been in the news recently for moving into the 1819 Innovation Hub at the University of Cincinnati, Matthews Brackeen’s alma mater. We caught up with this very busy startup guru to talk about the Cincinnati entrepreneurial scene, vacations and scooping ice cream.

What was your childhood like?

I’m from a pretty humble upbringing — I have five brothers. When I was born, my mom was only 19. We grew up in the housing projects in Toledo. After that experience, I lived in a small Polish neighborhood in Toledo and grew up through that system.

I think it still affects me. I volunteer a lot and I work with entrepreneurs every day, and that early experience allows me to dive deep into their personal lives. When we invest, we’re investing in a person and not just a company. It’s a long-term relationship and you’ve got to figure out where they’re coming from. If you don’t have any sort of background with experiences that were hard, you don’t understand what grit looks like and that sometimes there are bumps in the road that affect a person’s personality. I’ve lived through all of that

What were some of your first jobs?

My first job was working at Friendly’s scooping ice cream and putting the little cherry on top with the little face. I think I’m still rather friendly, and I think that working in the service industry is important.

Then, in college, I took a gap year from the university and worked for Delta Air Lines. Being a flight attendant, I learned that you never know where someone’s coming from or going to. They might be traveling because of something really hard. That moment on the plane is perhaps their time to relax and be there and you have to provide that safe space for them. I think all my past jobs have built into things that I use in my life now.

Were you always entrepreneurial?

Absolutely. I was the kid with the lemonade stand. I was the kid who did magic shows in front of my parents in the middle of them trying to play cards at home. I took my gap year from UC and spent some time flying around, and when I came back, I studied economics and statistics. I realized that I couldn’t work a job where I sat still. I fell in love with the fitness industry and started my own fitness studio, so that was my first business. I’ve done several things since — some good, some bad — but I’ve never really worked for anyone but myself.

How did Hillman Accelerator grow and evolve?

We started as a meetup group back in 2015. It was 11 of us — founders and a couple of interns. We started meeting monthly, helping other people with their companies and talking about enterprise sales, fundraising, legal issues, all sorts of things. It continued to grow, and eventually my co-founders and I decided to launch Hillman as a partnership with the Ohio Third Frontier.

We got our first grant in 2017, and that allowed us to do a pilot program where we invested $100,000 in three companies and ran them through a program. From there, we added new companies and programs and have served close to a hundred entrepreneurs through Hillman and the NewME program. We’ll work with about 120 people this year.

How have you changed as an entrepreneur throughout that process?

I think I’m a lot more patient. When I first started it was a lot of, ‘Why isn’t this working?’ And now it’s a lot more, ‘How can I navigate this process to make it work to my advantage?’ I’m still moving fast and trying to break things, but I’m a little more patient about the process.

What kind of impact do you think you’re making?

We’re the first accelerator in the Midwest to serve this segment, and the only accelerator in the country at this point that exclusively focuses on women and people of color in tech and innovation. We’re also the first investor in a lot of our companies, the first group to believe in them. Sometimes it just takes that little bit of a push. You hear a lot of entrepreneurs talking about and looking for a venture capitalist to lead, and we’re often that starting point. That’s a huge thing for a young company and our startup scene.

The most rewarding thing is seeing the revenue and jobs we help create. The confidence that entrepreneurs get from that is huge. This is a nonprofit, so it’s not like I’m making big money. But I get to see these people live their dreams and I get to see them on the news doing big things.

Why has Cincinnati been a good home for your organization?

I’ve lived in Ohio since birth and I love it here. Cincinnati is kind of perfect for us. The Midwest is a special place because people are willing to help each other; I see that every day. When we launched, I dreamed that we’d be able to interface with folks at Kroger and Procter & Gamble and here at UC. I didn’t know if it was really going to work, but it has. And I think it has a lot to do with where we are. We have access to many Fortune 500 companies, and we’ve been able to capitalize on that.

Personally, my first husband is from here and we have two children here. I’m in Ohio for a lot of family reasons, but obviously I’ve fallen in love with everything that Cincinnati has to offer.

How do you spend your spare time?

I love to travel. That’s my favorite thing. I’m a kayaker, so I like to take my boat either on the road or on a plane every once in a while. I’m a big cook, too.

It’s hard to say the best place I’ve traveled to recently. I went to Peru to see Machu Picchu for my honeymoon; that was fantastic. I also went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, with some other venture capitalists to learn about its history and the Tulsa race massacre. We found out it was a very cool city.

What’s the best thing about your job?

Learning about new things. I’m constantly learning about the leading edge of tech and innovation. Every time we open our inbox or look at a new application, it’s something brand new. There are a lot of innovations, and being able to go, ‘Oh, I like that; let’s find out more” and then actually finding out, that’s what I love to do every day.

The worst part is writing grants and doing paperwork. That’s hard work.

Working with startups, when are you most proud?

When they get big contracts with big corporations or you can see them doubling revenue year-over-year, getting their emails updates are great. Or when they text you and tell you something’s really going well. I got a call from someone yesterday who was so pumped about something. Those are the things I love. They’re my family, they really are. I love the people part of this job.

What advice would you give a young entrepreneur?

Surround yourself with great people because you don’t know everything. You might think you do, but if you surround yourself with great people, they’ll lift you up and give you all the energy you need. It doesn’t work to put yourself in a bubble. There are plenty of times when I was convinced, ‘I can do it myself,’ but it’s never going to work. You’ll burn yourself out. Hire great people, find great friends and stick with them. It’ll take you a long way.

What does the future look like for Hillman?

We’re raising a nice sized fund here in the state, so growing that is our short-term goal. Long-term, we plan to expand to other places so that we can have an even greater impact. We want to take this across the Midwest to other cities and bring folks back here so they can see the best of what Ohio has to offer.

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