In a prior life, Joe DeLoss worked as a banking analyst, but today, his day job couldn't be more different. DeLoss owns the wildly popular Hot Chicken Takeover in Columbus, Ohio, serving up Nashville Hot Chicken, a spicy style of fried chicken.
But it's not the leap from banking to fast food that makes his story so interesting. It's the fact that his two-year-old restaurant is staffed by a nearly 50-person workforce that has largely experienced incarceration. Some employees have criminal arrest records, while others have served time for everything from misdemeanors to felonies. DeLoss admits they might be overlooked by other employers, but he's a firm believer in second chances. Make no mistake, though; it's no charity.
"We created Hot Chicken Takeover to be a fair chance employer. A large part of our workforce has been affected by incarceration in the past, but it's not what defines our future. We have a team that works harder, is more productive and more motivated than most people in our industry," DeLoss said.
In a way, Hot Chicken Takeover is symbolic of the city it calls home. A supportive and determined yet humble place, with a group of leaders willing and eager to lift one another up for the greater good.
That message is resonating, helping to bring talent and jobs to the city. The Columbus metro area ranked in the top 15 nationally for start-up activity on the Kauffman Foundation's 2015 and 2016 start-up indexes, with nearly 72 start-ups for every 1,000 businesses in the area.
Local resources are helping fuel small business growth in a wide range of industries — from retail to food and beverage and technology. Two years ago, the city created the nation's first Small Business Concierge, a one-stop-shop and point of contact for all entrepreneurs, meant to assist them with everything, from finances to actually opening up shop. It's also free, an important benefit for cash-strapped start-ups.
"The small business owners and innovators of Columbus are driving change because of a culture of open-mindedness and an indelible collaborative spirit to work together to push this city forward," said Ryan Schick, Small Business Concierge for the City of Columbus. "There is a spirit among business owners and city government that what is best for all, is best for my endeavor."
The city has a robust loan program as well, in partnership with nonprofit lending organizations including the Economic Community Development Institute and Finance Fund, according to Schick. It's provided more than $1 million in loans leveraging more than $7.7 million in total funding to 26 businesses in 2016. The city also funded 25 grants in 2015 for revitalization totaling more than $235,000.
Being located in the Midwest hasn't handicapped start-ups' ability to raise capital within the state. Total venture capital investments in Ohio start-ups hit $373 million in 2015, up 16 percent from the year prior, according to a report from VentureOhio, an organization focused on catalyzing growth in the state's entrepreneurial ecosystem. Areas that are thriving include cybersecurity and health-care IT.
"We have laid the foundation for success that will allow Ohio to continue to build great companies to the region for years to come," according to Falon Donahue, CEO of VentureOhio.
Tanisha Robinson is building on that legacy with her start-up, Print Syndicate. The army veteran and serial entrepreneur caters to what used to be considered "counterculture tribes" — i.e. cat ladies, video gamers and knitting enthusiasts — with a line of quirky T-shirts, posters and home goods featuring offbeat memes and quotes. In 2012 she launched the company, and realized her intended audience was quickly becoming mainstream when she sold $4 million in product her first year.
By the end of 2016, Robinson expects that sales will hit $14 million, thanks in part to a smash hit T-shirt featuring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg looking like rapper Notorious B.I.G., crown and all, with the words "Notorious R.B.G." printed below.
Over the years she has built a following by using social media campaigns and influencers to tout her products.
"There's a cohort of people striving to build great businesses here in Columbus, and we all want each other to be successful; there's a consensus that we need a lot of big wins to drive this city forward," Robinson said. "And I get to work with a group of people that believe self expression matters, and that is really, really fun."
Robinson has 65 employees now, and keeps overhead costs low by not printing any product until an order is placed. Columbus not only gives her access to great talent, but allows the start-up, which has raised over $6 million, to pay workers a fair wage. At her manufacturing facility, for example, workers are making $14 an hour, and have benefits like paid time off. Ohio's minimum wage is $8.10 an hour.
Nearby, The Idea Foundry is also helping would-be entrepreneurs get ideas off the ground. Launched in 2008, the incubator is self-described as the world's "largest maker space," home to start-ups creating drones, 3-D scanning technology and video games. Here would-be entrepreneurs can develop product prototypes, get training, and gain access to tools and technology provided to them as Foundry members.
The concept was created by Alex Bandar, who said he was inspired by the way the internet had democratized the entrepreneurial process — people didn't need to necessarily go back to school to create something real.
"With open source software and crowdfunding, the only bottleneck to realizing an idea is access to tools, a place to congregate and a friendly and talented community of people to help turn the crank on that process," said Bandar, who self-funded the idea for six years before leaving his day job to run the Foundry full-time two years ago. It's grown from a 24,000-square foot commercial garage to a 60,000-square foot facility housed in a former factory.
The Foundry has 300 members, and has won several international "maker" competitions in 3-D printing, robotics and pyrotechnics.
"This is a can-do kind of community that is ex-industrial and manufacturing, but also high-tech and retail," Bandar said. "That is an excellent blend for the right ecosystem to help people become empowered to make their dreams come true.