One of the newest leaders of the Cincinnati startup scene is also one of its newest members. Kelly Bonnell is no stranger to the southwest Ohio business scene, where she spent years in marketing before working her way up the ranks to chief operating officer at BGR, a packaging supply distributor founded by her grandfather. But despite her love of the family business, she decided to make a major change, taking on her new role as executive director of Main Street Ventures, a nonprofit founded in 1999 to support emerging businesses. After just a couple months on the job, we sat down with Bonnell to talk about leaving the family business, the Cincinnati startup scene and her newfound interest in entrepreneurship.
After spending almost a decade with BGR, what prompted your career change?
I was fortunate to work in a variety of roles with BGR, as you do in any small private family business. I wore a lot of hats and got a lot of great experience. But after about nine years, I decided I wanted to do something different. I want to do something with my career where I can give back in some way, but still use my skills. That’s how I see my career at Main Street.
What made you interested in Main Street Ventures and their mission?
What attracted me to Main Street Ventures is their focus on giving back to entrepreneurs, which is such a perfect mix of what I wanted to do next and what I was trying to achieve, mixing my passion for family business and entrepreneurs with helping other businesses. It totally attracted me to this role, and what sealed the deal for me was a focus on giving to founders from historically underrepresented demographics like women, minorities and people of color. That’s shown in our data — 73% of who we have given our grants to over the years have gone to those categories of founders.
What’s it like adjusting to a totally new career focus?
The nonprofit space is different, and it’s activating different parts of my brain. What I love to do, especially with Main Street, is work at that strategic level of thinking — how can we grow? How can we expand our grant program?
Our board and our founders are so supportive and many are entrepreneurs themselves, so they think creatively too. They say, “Go test it,” and are totally supportive of trying new things. I love that. In some ways, that’s different from the corporate side. It’s about thinking creatively.
What are some of your goals with Main Street Ventures?
One of my goals is to figure out how we can get to 100 grants given by the end of 2022. It’s a huge goal for me, along with working for those founders who are historically underrepresented. How can we let them know we’re here as a resource in a variety of ways? The third goal I have is to really figure out how we position Main Street Ventures as an important part of the greater Cincinnati economic scene. We’ve been at this for 20 years, so we have a lot of resources and connections at our disposal to help founders and startups.
How would you describe the purpose of Main Street Ventures?
We exist to support founders and startups in the greater Cincinnati area through a grant-giving program. To me, it’s super unique in the startup scene because we’re not asking for equity — there’s no debt, there’s no note. We strictly want startups and founders in Cincinnati to thrive and build their businesses here. We want to further their ideas here, grow jobs and help grow the economy, which only feeds the great talent pool and the environment that we already have in the greater Cincinnati region.
What makes Cincinnati a great place to start a business?
That’s a great question for me because I am totally new to the startup world. My family business has been around for almost 50 years, so the startup scene wasn’t here when my grandfather started BGR. What I’ve come to learn from my first two months of meeting everyone is that people in this city want to help. Nobody has ulterior motives beyond supporting founders, supporting startups and growing the city. There are so many different resources available and we’re all working to figure out how to collaborate together. That’s such a cool piece of what has been built here. It’s been really energizing to see.
What was it like to grow up in the family business?
I have a very small family, and the family business was absolutely front and center. My dad and my uncle took it over from my grandfather when I was very young. They came in and really grew it to what it is now. All I know about work, work ethic and business was from BGR.
I was that kid who was very fortunate to have a company to work for in the summers. I would go work into the warehouse and I would put boxes or things together. I have vivid memories of my dad on vacation, bringing The Little Red Book of Selling and reading me quotes. I don’t know what that says about our family vacations, but it definitely gave me the business aspirations that I still have.
Were you entrepreneurial when you were younger?
You know, I wasn’t. If I could go back and choose my major again, I would absolutely choose an entrepreneurial study instead of marketing and international business. I’ve had the entrepreneurial mindset and spirit throughout my entire life because of my family business and background, but I wasn’t that kid that had a lemonade stand, probably because I was working at the company instead.
How do you spend your spare time?
I have a 2-year-old son and a 17 year old step-daughter. So that definitely keeps me busy, especially the 2-year-old. I’m really learning and seeing the world through his eyes — it’s been so awesome and crazy all at the same time. When we can travel, I love to travel. Of course, during these times that’s taken a little bit of a backseat, so I’ve grown a love for cooking too, maybe because of the pandemic. I’ve kind of developed a passion for it.
Are you involved with any programs or organizations outside of work?
I’m a person who can’t say no, but I really enjoy all the organizations that I work with. I’m heavily involved with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden and I’m on their Ambassador Council, which is pretty much like their junior board. We put together one of their big events called Zoo La La every summer. I’m also heavily active in the University of Cincinnati Goering Center for Private and Family business, which is a good parallel to our work with Main Street. I’m among their board of directors and we work to support family and private businesses with educational support in the city.
What’s one piece of advice would you give a young entrepreneur in Cincinnati?
The biggest piece of advice that I could give would be to get a mentor. There are so many people in this environment and in the greater Cincinnati area with expertise to give. They want to help, and it will do wonders for you. Even an unofficial board of advisors will help you tremendously as a group of mentors helping to guide you through questions you may have. You want a trusted circle for questions that can help grow your business.
What do you hope the future holds for Main Street Ventures?
The coolest thing that I think could happen in a year or two or five from now is that we had given a grant to a founder and in a few years they come back and want to donate to Main Street. It would be really rewarding to see them involved in Main Street because they’ve done so well with that startup that they come back and want to give back. Maybe they want to fund a grant for another startup. For me, that would be one of the coolest, most successful things to see.