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Fueling the Cincinnati startup ecosystem

Movers and makers are anywhere new ideas and creativity are flowing. And nowhere, these days, is there more flow than in the Greater Cincinnati startup community. Nonprofits play a huge role in inspiring, funding and guiding startup efforts – Cintrifuse, MORTAR, Main Street Ventures, among others – and area universities are also key players in this ecosystem. Below, we introduce a few, select faces working actively to make Cincinnati a powerful center for innovation and technology.

Eight leaders stoking the fires of innovation

Amy Vaughn

Amy Vaughan

CEO, Together Digital

Organization’s mission: Together Digital is a membership association and networking community designed for women in highly demanding tech and digital professions. It is the only group of its kind to offer an Ask & Give Exchange which results in raises, promotions and equal opportunity for women, who historically, have lost income and opportunities due to sexism and gender discrimination.

Role and responsibilities: I have been CEO for two years. First and foremost, I listen, whether through our Ask & Give Peer Circles or one on one with members. Outside of all of the day-to-day operations of the business, event, and content coordination, I am always looking for ways to improve the lives of our members. They are why I am here. They are why I stay.

What makes your organization unique? I am not sure people realize that Together Digital is more than a professional association. We are a community of ambitious yet supportive and collaborative women who know that the world does not always cater to us. We help each other navigate challenges and fears, gaining confidence, learning soft and hard skills all while making lifelong, career-changing connections.

Bill Tucker

Bill Tucker

ED, Flywheel Social Enterprise Hub

Organization’s mission: Flywheel Social Enterprise Hub equips our richly diverse, impact-focused entrepreneurs with knowledge, strategies, skills and connections to develop and expand their impact-focused businesses.

Role and responsibilities: My key responsibility is to ensure that Flywheel meets the expectations of its stakeholders, entrepreneurs, community leaders, funders, donors and partners. I joined Flywheel 10 years ago and have been executive director for almost eight years.

What makes your organization unique? Flywheel is entrepreneurial at its core – just like the impact-focused entrepreneurs we support. Our secret weapon is without a doubt our diverse network of coaches and mentors. These talented women and men come from all walks of life and backgrounds and support Flywheel entrepreneurs as they launch and scale businesses that have both social impact and financial return.

Kelly Bonnell

Kelly Bonnell

ED, Main Street Ventures

Organization’s mission: Main Street Ventures empowers the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Role and responsibilities: I am responsible for overseeing the administration, programs, and strategic plan of the organization. But that’s the “boilerplate” part. Ultimately, I’m in charge of ensuring Main Street Ventures is constantly evolving to best meet the needs of our region’s up-and-coming founders.

What makes your organization unique? Main Street Ventures is working to become the community-funded initiative that makes entrepreneurship possible for everyone in Greater Cincinnati by supporting entrepreneurs with what they need, when they need it: capital, connections and education. We do this because of this simple equation: Good Ideas + Financial Capital + Social Capital = Successful Businesses in A City Where You Want To Live.

Nancy Aichholz

Nancy Aichholz

President / CEO, Aviatra Accelerators Inc.

Organization’s mission: Celebrating 10 years of supporting women on the rise to find the power to soar, Aviatra Accelerators, a nonprofit organization, exists to empower female entrepreneurs, providing education, coaching, mentoring, networking and access to capital. Aviatra’s programs are tailored to meet the needs of women entrepreneurs at all stages of the business cycle.

Role and responsibilities: I have been with Aviatra for 6.5 years and am responsible for all aspects of the nonprofit, including board management, development, strategic planning, community relations and delivering on our mission to start, grow and sustain female-owned businesses.

What makes your organization unique? Aviatra Accelerators is one of the only organizations in the United States that serves women entrepreneurs across all industries and at any stage of their business cycle. We are a full-service resource center for women founders.

Michael Young

Michael Young

ED, StudyHall

Organization’s mission: StudyHall engages volunteers to democratize access to tutoring in virtual setting, supporting students’ ability to read on grade level.

Role and responsibilities: I’ve been the executive director of StudyHall since its inception 18 months ago. As a pandemic-founded organization, and relying heavily on a small team, my role is focused on discovering new ways to strategically implement technological solutions in a rapidly changing landscape. I also write a significant portion of the code that allows us to respond quickly to user feedback and strategic initiatives.

What makes your organization unique? StudyHall combines the best components of technology and nonprofit organizations to have an outsized impact on the students with whom we work. We know efficiencies provided by technology can increase the positive impact on our students, volunteers and the community.

Ricardo Grant

Ricardo Grant

ED, SoCap Accelerate; Founder of Paloozanoire and Gallery At Gumbo

Organization’s mission: SoCap Accelerate is a Pre-Series A health innovation accelerator based out of Northern Kentucky University in partnership with St. Elizabeth Healthcare. Paloozanoire is dedicated to enriching the lives of Midwestern Black professionals, creatives and entrepreneurs. We own the Cincinnati Juneteenth Block Party, Paloozanoire Lifestyle Conference and Black & Brown Faces Art Exhibition. Gallery At Gumbo is Cincinnati’s intentionally inclusive barbershop and art gallery, collaboration home to Gumbo Talks, a conversation series amongst Cincinnati stakeholders with the goal to advance the human race via a wide range of perspectives.

Role and responsibilities: For all positions: I build, activate and execute. I manage teams associated with each organization, build and advance partnerships, raise capital and expand on long-term vision.

What makes your organization unique? SoCap Accelerate, Paloozanoire and Gallery At Gumbo were built in the past four years with the goal to fill gaps in our region. That need allowed us to gain advocates amongst stakeholders and the community and ecosystem at large.

Sue Baggott

Sue Bevan Baggott

Founder, Power Within Consulting; DEI chair, Queen City Angels; founding member, Next Wave Impact

Organization’s mission: Focusing in on Queen City Angels, it’s an angel-investing group dedicated to the prosperity and growth of Greater Cincinnati’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. We focus on organizing early-stage investors to support entrepreneurs as we recognize their critical role in creating breakthrough solutions that make lives better, create new jobs and drive our economy. Additionally, we provide significant advice and mentoring to founding teams to improve their chances of success.

Role and responsibilities: As my work on QCA’s strategic direction progressed, one of the key strategic pillars QCA chose to focus on was improving DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion). QCA believes that bringing in more diverse investors leads to better outcomes – better investment decisions, more diverse entrepreneurs applying for funding, and stronger results and returns. Working closely with our marketing committee, we have designed and added a new membership “starter tier” called QCA Ascent, and we’ve grown the organization from 60 members to 120+ members. At the same time we’ve significantly expanded the diversity of our investor members across age, gender and cultural background.

What makes your organization unique? The uniqueness of QCA lies in our wonderful combination of dedicated investor members and amazing entrepreneurial teams. Our investors are experienced business leaders who go beyond just capital funding to provide coaching, mentoring and expertise to emerging companies. Each year our investors contribute thousands of hours of service to our portfolio companies as well as to the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem. Plus, we have amazingly dedicated founders leading our 40+ portfolio companies through the challenging early phases of company establishment and growth.

Tim Metzner

Tim Metzner

Co-founder, chief strategy officer, Coterie Insurance

Organization’s mission: Coterie is an insurtech focused on simplifying business insurance through speed, simplicity and service.

Role and responsibilities: I help set and reinforce company culture, vision, mission, values and strategy, and help create and lead a team focused on building an innovation pipeline. I’ve been in this role (in addition to others) since our founding in 2018.

What makes your organization unique? Our vision at Coterie Insurance is building a tech- and data-first organization to transform the commercial insurance industry, our people, our expertise and our culture. We’re running after a big vision with a very diverse and experienced team from both insurance and technology.

Let’s talk …

Why Cincinnati?

Ricardo Grant: I was born and raised in South Avondale. I never left because I firmly believe we are the hidden city; a city under a creative renaissance specifically amongst entrepreneurs of color. People often ask, “Would you consider leaving to build in cities that appear to produce greater opportunity?” and my response is short and concise. No. The opportunity is here.

Kelly Bonnell: I like to joke that I recently realized I have become a Cincinnati stereotype. I was born and raised here and never left. I live five minutes from the house I grew up in and maybe seven minutes from my parents. All kidding aside, it is such an exciting time to be here. The city is so alive and such a hidden gem. What I love most is that it’s a city where it is easy to get involved. If you want to be a part of something and lend your voice, time or talents, you simply need to raise your hand. It’s not that simple in other places.

Tim Metzner: I have never left Cincinnati because there has never been a shortage of opportunity, great people or family! Now that I’m also a parent of four kiddos 9 and under, I also appreciate just how incredible a place this is to raise a family.

Amy Vaughan: My father moved here in the late ’70s from Cairo, Egypt. My mom was his English tutor at their West Side high school. They married and moved to the East Side, where I grew up. I moved away to Chicago after I married my high school sweetheart. We lived there for seven years before moving to England for two years, then Ann Arbor, Michigan, for one year – until we finally settled in Ohio to be close to family and for my husband’s job at UC.

Michael Young: I left, and vowed to never come back. A couple years later, an opportunity presented itself in Cincinnati and I couldn’t pass up the chance to work on something I was passionate about. Shortly after moving back I became a part of a young professional-centered volunteer organization, Give Back Cincinnati, and the rest is history.

Nancy Aichholz: I grew up in Cincinnati. I went away for undergrad but returned because Cincinnati has such a rich culture of arts and entertainment, safe neighborhoods and great schools. Even at a young age, I felt the power of the connections that Cincinnati provides and wanted to capitalize on that network.

Sue Baggott: I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, and I was recruited to Cincinnati by P&G where I spent the first chapter of my career becoming a global innovation leader working in Beauty Care, Cosmetics & Fragrances, and Baby Care. At P&G, I met my husband, Steve, and soon after we married we did an international assignment in Europe, moved to Baltimore and eventually moved back to Cincy in 1997. While neither of us grew up in Cincy, we’ve loved the friendly atmosphere and the accessibility to so many wonderful amenities such as parks, sports, restaurants, theater, community centers and more.

Bill Tucker: I grew up in Texas and began my professional career in Illinois. I came to Cincinnati in 1995 when my company was acquired. Although I transferred to Atlanta for a few years, I couldn’t wait to get back to the Midwest city that I had fallen in love with.

What is your favorite thing about Cincinnati?

Tucker: The rich diversity of our community; being in relationship with people who don’t look like me or have the same life experiences as I do.

Vaughan: Just one!? I would say evolution. When I moved away in 2001, this city was completely different. The food, art, culture, small businesses and the startup community have evolved so much. To this day it is still evolving, and I’ve loved seeing it all happen firsthand.

Young: Give Back Cincinnati. It is the best thing a young professional can get involved with. Over the years I have found myself in places I didn’t know existed, found amazing restaurants and learned about interesting breweries and bars. While learning about interesting things to do in the area, I got to be a small part of making a difference: by serving more than 12,000 Thanksgiving meals, painting over a hundred houses, and hosting more than 100 other volunteer events throughout the region.

Aichholz: One of my favorites is our beautiful skyline as you drive into Cincinnati on I-75 North – another good reason to get that bridge built!!

Baggott: Impact 100, Sotto’s short rib cappellacci and Graeter’s ice cream.

What has been your biggest personal challenge working in the startup space?

Grant: A perfect product is unobtainable, and if we try to build the perfect solutions prior to releasing, they will never get released to the world. MVP (minimal valuable product) is a term that is so misunderstood but the keyword is “valuable.” When I walk into the Juneteenth Block Party amongst the 5,000 who have trusted us to attend and be inspired and celebrate, do I notice the lighting on the stage being slightly off? Sure I do. Do the 5,000 people? No they don’t, nor do they care either. I now release everything when the people want it, not when I want them to have it.

Tucker: Time. It takes time to understand where the on-ramps are for entrepreneurs as they seek access to customers, talent and capital. Asking for help goes a long way towards understanding where to find help.

Young: Isolation during lockdown has been my biggest personal challenge. The chance encounters with my network were gone, it was harder to talk through problems and I got in my own head. Huge shout out to my friend Kelly Bonnell at Main Street Ventures for taking the time to help me talk through problems and develop a plan for StudyHall’s future.

Aichholz: My biggest challenge was coming from the corporate world and then owning my own business; learning the ropes of a nonprofit professional had a steeper learning curve than I expected. Once I accepted that, it is really all about development and fundraising so we can deliver on our mission. It became much easier!

What do you feel Cincinnati startup space has to offer? What would you change?

Vaughan: I’ve been involved in the past with Cintrifuse, Union Hall and the Brandery as an agency, resident and supporter. Union Hall is a gem. Our Together Digital Cincinnati Chapter still uses the space for their meet-ups. Also, pre-pandemic, having the space to go and work outside of home helped me make the shift from agency life to small-business owner, which can get a bit lonely.

Metzner: The “Midwest nice” advantage is real! It is quite easy to get connected to and get a meeting with just about anyone in town, across industries. Not only that, there’s a genuine desire to want to help founders!

Bonnell: I think a better question is “What doesn’t Greater Cincinnati have to offer startups?” However, too many good ideas fall by the wayside because opportunities for starting and growing a business are not equally available to all founders in our community. Plus, it takes time to gain the traction needed for venture funding or loans. Main Street Ventures’ programs level the playing field to make entrepreneurship accessible and equitable in our region. Our Launch and Leap Grant Funding Programs seek to bridge the capital gap so that all good ideas can be brought to life.

Grant: This city is a roll-your-sleeves-up kind of place. We don’t hang our ability to get things done on anyone other than ourselves. The fact that the rest of the world thinks we’re behind is something that I love, to be honest. It allows me the capability to build and create without too much noise. The one thing we can do better is collaborate; what we can get done together is far greater than what we can get done separately.

Favorite advice book, blogger or podcast related to startups?

Vaughan: “How I Built This” is a great way to hear behind the scenes of founder stories. I also love and will listen to anything by Adam Grant, who is an organizational psychologist and/or Brene Brown who by now just about everyone knows. As for books, definitely read “Originals” by Adam Grant as well.

Grant: “Drink Champs.” The entire premise of this podcast is to get legendary hip-hop artists to reveal intimate stories about their journeys and humble beginnings. If you think about hip-hop, which is still fairly new, you have to acknowledge the entrepreneurial spirits of these men and women who had embarked on a journey never walked before. It’s beyond inspirational.

Metzner: Reach out for coffee and I’ll tailor my suggestions based on your needs! A few general ones I’ve found most useful though: “The Hard Thing about Hard Things,” anything by Reid Hoffman (his podcasts and books are amazing) and “Working Backwards.”

Young: If you hang around me enough, I’ll annoy you until you read “Ask Your Developer” by Jeff Lawson, the founder of Twilio. If you’re a non-technical founder, it does a great job explaining what high quality developers are looking for in a role and how to get the most out of them.

Bonnell: Without a doubt, subscribe and listen to “From Founder to CEO.” In each episode, Todd Uterstaedt, a resident of our great city, interviews super successful and amazing founders – think Netflix, Calendly, Basecamp – the list goes on. You come away with something to think about every time.

Aichholz: My go-to book is the Holy Bible. It is amazing what God has to teach us all in that timeless book! I also like to follow highly successful female founders like Martha Stewart and Sara Blakely. Actually, one that is local and an Aviatra graduate that I follow very closely is Lisa Woodruff of

Baggott: A favorite book recommendation of mine for entrepreneurs focuses on how anyone can build their connection skills through an abundance mentality and cultivating meaningful relationships: “The Connector’s Advantage” by Michele Tillis Lederman.

What other wisdom would you share with those in the Cincinnati startup and innovation community?

Aichholz: I like to tell our female founders to just DO IT. Don’t overthink something that you are passionate about. Just throw it on the wall and see if it sticks. If something doesn’t work, it isn’t a failure, because you learn from it. Just fix it or try something else.

Vaughan: Prioritize sleep, hydration and meditation. Work smarter, not harder. Build the kind of business you wish existed.

Tucker: The Cincinnati entrepreneurial ecosystem, unlike many others, takes an inclusive, collaborative approach that focuses on more than valuations and exits and instead embraces organizations such as Flywheel that contribute to improving the social fabric of our community.

Young: Ask your developer! A high-quality developer will help you create unique solutions to actual business problems. It’s also a great way to keep a developer engaged in your work instead of looking for their next opportunity.

Baggott: Observe and listen closely, look for ways to serve and always give first. In my early days exploring our entrepreneurial ecosystem, I learned a lot through observing the dynamics, asking probing questions and listening closely to understand the landscape so I could find the spaces where I might contribute. With this focus on service and adding value, I was able to build positive relationships and trust.

Metzner: Over-invest in building great culture. Everyone talks about the importance of hiring great people (true!) and how they are our greatest asset, but not as many back that up with action by investing time and resources in building into them and creating a great work environment. Start early and don’t lose sight of this as you grow.

Grant: Stay here, we’re going places.

Responses were compiled and edited by Movers & Makers staff.

StartupCincy Week, Oct. 26-29

Produced by Cintrifuse, this multi-day event features:

  • Concentrated bursts of content – panelists, speakers, and keynotes

  • Happy Hours and networking opportunities

  • Cintrifuse annual meeting

  • FinTech Frontier Pitch Competition for a $75,000 prize pool

  • Startup job fair … and much more

StartupCincy Week 2021 will include both in-person and virtual elements, depending on in-place CDC and governmental guidelines.


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