If you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur in Akron, chances are you’ve interacted with Heather Roszczyk. She’s the City’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Advocate, tasked with boosting small businesses, connecting the city’s network of entrepreneurs and doing just about everything in between. The Youngstown native and marketing expert spent time in many different fields and locations before returning to northeast Ohio, and is now working to build a thriving business community in Akron. She sat down to talk to us about the city’s emerging startup scene, moving to the public sector and the way 2020 will have a lasting effect on business.
You work with a lot of entrepreneurs and new businesses, so you must have experience at a startup, right?
I actually don’t have startup experience, but my career is hugely varied. I started my career at Nike in product marketing and then worked as director of marketing for a food and farming nonprofit called Countryside Conservancy and the Akron Symphony Orchestra. The common denominator through all of it has been building communities and my curiosity about people and desire to bring people together around a common cause. In 2016, I was the first Akron entrepreneurship fellow for The Fund for Our Economic Future. They were trying to bolster the entrepreneurship community here in Akron and wanted to do it in a very grassroots way, so they created this fellowship. I was fortunate enough to step into that role and after a little under two years, the mayor’s office wanted to create a similar role within city administration so I moved into that role with the City of Akron.
It’s a big change to move to the public sector. What went into your decision to step into that role?
It’s been an amazing opportunity. I’ve worked in the private sector, with nonprofits and fundraising, in philanthropy and now in the public sector. I was very nervous about getting into the public sector because I think the government is often seen as so slow and not interested in innovating. But Mayor Horrigan and his entire administration was so interested in, “How do we move quickly? How do we move efficiently? How do we create a space where entrepreneurship can thrive?” I feel like that willingness was really attractive and interesting to me. And it’s great knowing that the city’s reach is huge — as city government, we have a true ability to make a real impact. So that was extremely attractive to me.’
What have you been particularly proud of achieving since joining the city?
One of the things that I’m really proud of is the Akron Is For Entrepreneurs campaign, an ongoing effort. We actually started it while I was still with the Fund and then it came to the city with me. It’s a social media campaign aimed at shining a light on entrepreneurs and business owners within the city of Akron and telling their success stories. It’s also about trying to share as many resources as possible. We have a lot of resources for entrepreneurs in Akron, and I’m proud of that. I really believe that our stories matter, and I think they can shift the collective conscience of how a city views itself. I really feel like that campaign made an impact in small business growth in Akron.
The city is also working on a new revolving loan fund that is aimed specifically at helping disadvantaged entrepreneurs. I think we’re going to see more programs like that as people and entities have their eyes opened to some of the challenges that others are facing.
What’s different about the way Akron supports business owners now versus in the past?
Previously, there wasn’t a lot of attention being put on the small business owners or the startups. It was about the big corporations and their stories. Helping make that shift was incredibly satisfying and I think it made a difference. We’re also in the middle of the Rubber City Match program, where we play matchmaker and connect business owners who are looking to expand into a brick and mortar location with vacant buildings. That’s a really impactful program.
How has your perspective changed since beginning work for the City?
I think my eyes have been opened to some of the challenges that entrepreneurs face. Access to capital is a constant struggle and I think, particularly for female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color, it can be a real barrier to opening a business or to expanding a business.
What do you admire about the Akron business community as a whole?
People in northeast Ohio like to be helpful. And in the business space, that’s wonderful because there’s a real community between the business owners who want to help others succeed, whether that’s informal relationships or at more formal networking events. Also, as a mid-sized city, I always joke that we’ve got two degrees of separation as opposed to the standard six. It’s incredible because you’re within a couple of degrees of the mayor of the city or from the director of the Akron Urban League or whatever organization you want to get involved with, whatever corporation you want to get involved with. Chances are, you know someone who wants to help make a connection and I think that’s a real benefit to being in a city of this size.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic shaped your current goals and initiatives?
I would say a bulk of my work right now is responding to COVID-19. It’s an unfortunate reality that we’re seeing a lot of businesses close their doors as a result of the pandemic. In some cases, it’s a temporary thing and for others, unfortunately, it’s permanent. Now, they’re thinking about what’s next. We want to make sure that we are helping bridge that gap, supporting and encouraging them in whatever that next venture is. Maybe this can be a new opportunity to start something new.
When you’re not working, how do you blow off steam?
I have a son and a daughter, 8 and 6, so they take up a lot of my spare time. But when I am not parenting or working, I’m an ultra runner, so I spend a lot of time on trails in the woods. I love Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Summit Metro Parks. They’re both amazing. I ran my first hundred-miler last summer, the Burning River endurance run, 100 miles of trails. I could spend all day out there every day. I love it.
What’s your favorite Akron spot that not everyone knows?
I love Sanabel, which is a Middle Eastern restaurant and one of our best-kept secrets. It’s a hidden gem, but it’s a family owned business that has incredible food. The Spotted Owl is another newer spot, it’s a craft cocktail place that has a really great vibe and amazing cocktails. It’s like asking me to pick my favorite child — you can’t!
What advice would you give an up-and-coming entrepreneur?
Talk to as many people as you can about your idea. I think a lot of times, entrepreneurs are scared to say their idea out loud because they’re afraid someone’s going to steal it. But if you have a fantastic idea, it’s about quality and speed to market. If you’ve got a really great idea that you can do better than anybody else and that you can do quickly, you’re going to get there. The more help and advice you can get, especially when you’re first starting out, the better. At the end of the day, you need to trust your gut. But reaching out to people, especially in the early stages, is really important and will set you up for success.