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Ohio

11 mins read

Billy Vickers has quietly built one of the largest Black owned businesses in the U.S.

As the leader of a company with $1.2 billion in revenue, you’d think Billy Vickers might be pretty well-known in Central Ohio. You’d be wrong. Despite the soaring success of Vickers’ Modular Assembly Innovations, its president and CEO is somewhat of an enigma both locally and nationally.

billy vickers

Billy Vickers, 62, of Delaware, admits he doesn’t seek the limelight and wouldn’t have agreed to be interviewed for this profile without a nudge from his mentor, Detroit businessman Joseph Anderson Jr., as well as his company’s sole customer, Honda. “He needs less humility,” chuckles Anderson, who’s known Vickers for 15 years and helped propel his success. “Did he tell you his company is in the top five of the Black Enterprise List of 100?”

No, he did not mention that Modular Assembly is ranked fifth in the list of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses for 2019. “He’s a stellar, outstanding business owner,” says Anderson. “He’s not content with doing OK or doing well; he has that thirst and hunger for continuous improvement, which is what good leaders are all about.”

Early days

The seed for that work ethic, says Vickers, was planted on his grandfather’s North Carolina cotton farm in Forest City near Charlotte and Asheville. It was the early 1960s, and everyone in the family pitched in with the hard work that began early each morning and ended late each night.

There were small pleasures, like riding a mule-drawn wagon into town for a Nehi soda and cookies and trying his first bite of pizza at age 10 in the segregated elementary school he attended. Church was a constant, with a deep faith in God instilled in him at an early age and more than a dozen family members immersed in the church as evangelists.

He doesn’t remember stories of racism, but does remember fifth grade when he attended his first integrated school. “The world opened up to me, and there were people who looked different than me,” he says.

An “old ornery football coach” persuaded him to play football as a high school freshman, and he learned he could work well with a team, develop his athletic skills and play well enough to be courted by North Carolina State University –“my ticket out of rural North Carolina,” as he puts it, and the first in his family to attend college.

Vickers majored in animal science in college, but his real dream was to play in the National Football League. Two months before graduating, he tore his MCL, but still was drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1980. He never played and was released because of his knee. He was able to sign with another team, but reinjured his knee, ending his football career. “Then I had to get a real job,” he says.

Up the business ladder

Vickers entered the business world as a management trainee at Corning Electronics in Raleigh, North Carolina, moved back to Forest City to work at a brass foundry, then was recruited to work at a steel mill in Ironton, Ohio, where he rose to plant superintendent. Eight years later he landed in Detroit running the largest minority-owned foundry at the time, making parts for Chrysler.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he says. “It introduced me to more of the automotive industry and I got the opportunity to run the plant and be the top guy.” Eventually, global competition became too stiff and, in 2003, Vickers helped shut the plant down.

By then he’d also established his own business, Quality Engineering, which focused on work for automotive suppliers. Then, in 2004, Anderson came calling. An Army veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, Anderson gained fame in the 1960s as the commander of the infantry platoon featured in the acclaimed documentary, The Anderson Platoon.

After a 13-year military career, he moved into the private sector for a 13-year career with General Motors, eventually heading a business unit with 7,000 employees and $1 billion in revenue. By the mid-1990s he had acquired a controlling interest in Chivas Products Limited, and a few years later started TAG Holdings LLC.

As chairman and CEO, Anderson was always looking for talented men and women to manage the companies TAG Holdings was acquiring. When he agreed to launch a modular assembly and supply chain management company as a joint venture with Honda, he searched for someone with the right background and found Vickers.

“He was a person who had a business operations background, who had been responsible for employees and who I knew was competitive,” Anderson says. “And there was a level of maturity I saw that said he had the motivation and drive to succeed.”

In January 2005, Vickers became president and CEO of the new venture, Great Lakes Assemblies LLC, with TAG as the majority owner and Midwest Express Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Honda, as a partner. The company produces automobile center console modules, tire and wheel assemblies, powertrain accessory modules, chassis components and engine components for Honda.

Two years later, TAG Holdings and Honda created Gulf Shore Assemblies LLC, in Lincoln, Alabama, and a year later Indiana Assemblies in Greensburg, Indiana. Both produce tire and wheel assemblies as well as other products for Honda plants in those locations. “When I started out it was a $200 million to $300 million business in Ohio, and that grew to a $700 million operation by 2010,” Anderson says.

How did your childhood shape you as a businessman?

I grew up in North Carolina near the foothills on a farm. My grandfather had the farm and we all had to help. We grew cotton, and you didn’t make a lot of money with cotton back then. But we were fortunate that he had land. The entire family kind of pitched in.

I think my work ethic actually comes from that. When you’re on a farm, you get up early in the morning and you work all day, into the night. You’ve got to take care of the animals; you’ve got to take care of the crops. And then, you know, living in the South, it’s all about religion. You grow up with that faith in God, and it’s instilled in you at a very early age, and I’m very thankful for that.

What does it take to run a large business in the U.S. when you are an African American male? 

I think it’s just surrounding yourself with good people and surrounding yourself with people that don’t necessarily look like you or think like you. I don’t want people that think the same way that I think. I want people that think differently who will challenge me. I love having a different mix of people in the room.

I also think it’s about being a good business person, a good individual, someone that people respect, someone that they trust that if you make a commitment, you keep it. I think the key to my success is that my customer knows that. If there’s a problem, then we’re going to come up with a solution; we’ll find a way to make it happen. I think probably the biggest thing is trust. My customer trusts me because it knows I’m going to do the right thing.

How do you achieve a work/family balance? 

I tell all of our associates: You’ve got to have a work/life balance, you’ve got to make sure that the time we put in here at work is efficient.

I try to make sure that the time I put in here is efficient and the time I put in as a member of the boards that I sit on aligns with what’s important to me, because you have to sacrifice an amount of time for that from your family and work. I try to make sure I have a good work and family balance, which is easy to say but harder to do.

 

Source: Columbus CEO


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12 mins read

This Doula Is Fighting Back Against The High Infant Mortality Rate in her Community

The high rate of death for black infants showcases the virulent brutality of institutional racism. Recent data collected by the US government has found that black babies are twice as likely to die as white babies.

And, according to reporting done by ProPublica in 2017, black mothers are 243 percent more likely to die of pregnancy or childbirth-related causes than white women. This injustice is explicitly racist and transerveses class—just look at the near-fatal pregnancies suffered by Beyonce and Serena Williams, two of America’s most prominent black women.

Christin Farmer of Cleveland, Ohio is working to change these staggering statistics in one of the nation’s worst states for infant mortality. The 32-year-old formed a small collective of community-based doulas called Birthing Beautiful Communities (BBC).

doula
christin farmer

Unlike midwives, who are healthcare providers that actually deliver babies, doulas are birthing coaches that guide you through pregnancy.

doula
Part of the team at Birthing Beautiful Communities includes, From left to right, Rod’Neyka Jones, Myranda Majid, founder Christin Farmer, Khalilah Williams (credit:WKSU)

The goal of Farmer’s team of doulas is to reduce the high infant mortality rate in Cleveland’s toughest neighborhoods by providing free support to women during their pregnancy, delivery, and through the baby’s first year of life.

Farmer and her staff of 20 black women face problems around birthing that are even more severe than the already disconcerting national statistics. Ohio’s black women have the second highest infant-death ratio according to a January 2018 report by the Center for Disease Control.

And in 2016 in Cleveland, where BBC is based, the mortality rate for white babies was 4.8, while for black babies it was 14.9Preliminary data in 2017 has suggested that the death gap ratio between black and white babies has widened, as there was a 45 percent decline for white infants and a slight increase for black infants.

Luckily, BBC is there to help make a difference. Since 2015, the organization has assisted over 50 women. Farmer strives for her organization to model the principles of sisterhood to help demonstrate equality, solidarity and support to heal pain and trauma experienced in Cleveland’s communities of color. Through programs like Sisters Offering Support (SOS) Circles and parent development classes, the group continues to thrive.

In July, the organization was recognized as a “National Best Babies Zone” by the Kellogg Foundation for their achievement in tackling disparities. At the event, Farmer addressed the ongoing problem of infant mortality in Cleveland as well as her initiatives to turn BBC into a social enterprise. I caught up with Farmer to discuss the organization’s origins, some of the initiatives presented at BBZ, and her commitment to modeling sisterhood and equity for the community she serves.

Were you always interested in birthwork?

Since I was 16, I always knew I wanted to be a midwife and open up a birthing center. Doula work, however, never crossed my mind. In high school when my best friend got pregnant, I became so obsessed with her and her baby, so that solidified my passion for it. I studied as a nursing major in college but it was challenging. Then I applied to a program for certified professional midwifery that didn’t require a nursing degree. I was denied admission. It completely shattered my life plan, but it became a blessing because it pushed me to form BBC. I then put out a PSA on Facebook asking if people knew women in Cleveland who did this work or wanted to do this work and the ball got rolling from there.

Did you all start off working full time?

We were just volunteers at first. I remember telling them, we’re really going to make this full time, I just need y’all to ride with me. Then, we all eventually ended up leaving our other jobs and taking it to the next level.

Christin Farmer, the founder of Birthing Beautiful Communities, walks with Knoelle Holmes before a teaching session of expectant and new mothers on Thursday, June 29, 2017. (Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer)

I’ve noticed there’s a lack of representation of women of color in birth work.

It’s disheartening considering black women were always midwives delivering everyone’s babies, including their own. We know negative stigmas were attached to black midwives in the South and the movement toward the practice of gynecology as well as the ridiculous level of certifications all plays a part of it. It cost money to get those credentials and who’s got the money to send black women to school when African Americans are 228 years behind in economic wealth compared with their white counterparts?

Did this impact your reason for starting BBC?

Absolutely. I thought I was the only black doula in Cleveland, which was extremely odd considering our infant mortality rate. So, I reached out to organizations to secure funding to train women who were culturally appropriate and culturally centered for these central communities.

Could you talk about some of the objectives you proposed at the Best Babies Zone?

A few of our objectives include hiring a program manager to help oversee and connect for profit businesses in the economic development sector and the health sector, having an administrative campus and birthing center to serve as a healing space specifically from a grassroots perspective, and hiring a black male psychologist.

A healing space seems like an interesting concept. 

Healing trauma in our community is an objective that’s very important to me. For African Americans, we’re dealing with at least three types of traumas at any given time. For example, we deal with generational trauma or issues that have been born out of slavery and the social conditioning adapted from those challenges. As birthworkers, we see this (trauma) in the form of emotional detachment from mothers with their children.

In our SOS Circles, to heal this wound, we dig deep, allowing us to associate what stressors the women are facing and identify why anxiety, panic, or fear, comes out around detachment. So in these meetings, we rip off the bandaid from a wound that never healed and say: “If we want to see our babies staying alive, our mothers healthy, our men as protectors and providers, we have to get to the root and address these problems.”

Speaking of stress, what are common ones you find in the women who attend SOS circles?

It comes from your family life. You could be a single parent, or have a unsupportive husband. It’s also your environment; an anxiety of violence or fear of personal safety. Or pressures of pursuing better education and job opportunities. The women who work in corporate often deal with microaggressions and disrespect, causing a lot of internalized stress that they begin to normalize. These stressors are all the same no matter a women’s socioeconomic status.

Can you talk about your reason for modeling sisterhood in BBC?

Without a doubt, [sisterhood] is the foundation that has lead to our success. Before I hire the women, I have everyone sign an agreement outlining five principles. If you violate them, then you have to go. It’s for the women receiving service.

We have to be able to demonstrate to them the possibility of having meaningful relationships with other women. I’m not saying that people don’t rub each other the wrong way sometimes. But, it’s this respect, love, and support that’s trickled down to our men and our children. It’s then that healing and equity begin.

Speaking of equity, what does it mean to you and how is it modeled at BBC?

Equity is putting a surplus of opportunity in front of people who have been historically deprived of it. That is what we do. We take people in from the community, hire them to work at livable wages, pay a flat fee for every birth they attend, and give them benefits. It’s funny because a lot of people say they know what equity means and if they do, they don’t implement it or have the tools to implement it.

What’s been the impact since launching BBC?

We recently did a qualitative study and in it the women talked about our practices as a whole for them and the city. We’ve introduced a new perspective, an example of equity and most importantly demonstrated that black women are doing this work.

For most people, it’s shocking to discover all the people who work here are black. People always want to know who my boss is, they think it’s someone white. My Chief Operating Officer always laughs because people always think her boss is white, like, No, she’s black, too. We run this. It’s us modeling what a sector—economics, health, business, community—can look like if implemented the right way.

 

Source: VICE

14 mins read

LeBron James’ “I Promise School” Really is The First of its Kind

Akron’s public schools have a major problem; its at-risk students are falling well behind the rest of the K-12 population in the classroom. The question the district faces now is whether LeBron James can fix that. There are a lot of other schools (website here) who, just like the I Promise school, are looking at how to help young people with their education.

James’ I Promise School opened Monday to serve low-income and at-risk students in his hometown, and the public school could be an agent of change in the eastern Ohio city. The institution is the intersection of James’ philanthropic Family Foundation and the I Promise Network he helped kickstart.

I Promise began as an Akron-based non-profit aimed at boosting achievement for younger students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Now the movement has the means to educate these students year-round.

There are aspects of James’ school that are wholly unique. There are others that build on a tested network of educational reforms. Here’s why the I Promise School stands out.

I Promise is building from a model that’s shown success

I Promise will feature longer school days, a non-traditional school year, and greater access to the school, its facilities, and its teachers during down time for students. That’s a formula aimed at replicating some of the at-home support children may be missing when it comes to schoolwork. The school has also anchored its curriculum in math and science-based teaching, dipping into the STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — curriculum that prepares students for the jobs of the future.

This interweaving of community-building and future-focused learning isn’t new and has succeeded at other innovative schools across the country.

Several reform-minded schools have carved similar paths for I Promise to follow. The Knowledge is Power Program, better known as KIPP, has created the nation’s largest network of charter schools by catering to marginalized students with longer class hours, increasing access to teachers, and a tough but accommodating schedule for students. Rocketship Public Schools, another non-profit charter program with schools in California, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Washington D.C., operates with a similarly non-traditional classroom. Rocketship emphasizes a STEM-based curriculum while bringing a student’s home life into the classroom and continuing learning outside regular class hours. Both take aim at reducing the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers.

It’s still early, but reports from I Promise suggest the school will address Akron’s achievement gap by running similar reforms as other successful national programs. It does not go as far as KIPP or Rocketship in those charges, but it’s clear I Promise is designed to operate at a level beyond the typical public school by creating a more comprehensive experience for students, not just one that begins at 7 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m.

I Promise is a regular public school, not a charter or a voucher-receiving private school

This kind of wide reform is rare to see at a traditional neighborhood school. KIPP and Rocketship schools have been successful in larger cities across the nation, but typically operate outside the purview of their local school boards as charter schools. Several private schools, like Milwaukee’s St. Marcus Lutheran Schools or Philadelphia’s Gesu School, have instituted reforms like these while enrolling students using publicly-funded vouchers or tax-credit scholarships.

I Promise is neither. As far as Akron’s records are concerned, it’s another neighborhood public school.

That shows how badly James wanted his school to be a no-exceptions public school. I Promisecould have helped students as a charter school with less local oversight and still served its community. It could have been a private school that enrolled Akron’s underserved students at no cost to them through the state’s low-income voucher program. In either case, the school would have operated as a separate entity from the school system in which James grew up.

Instead, I Promise is a full-fledged part of Akron Public Schools, the 29th elementary school in the district. This helps keep the institution inclusive to its local student body.

It also raises questions about funding. Per the state of Ohio, Akron’s schools were given just $10,028 in state and local funds per student in 2016 — more than the statewide average, but still a relatively low figure for a city of a little under 200,000.

That’s not a lot of money to operate a school with such grand aspirations, which is where the LeBron James Family Foundation comes in. James’ nonprofit is the leader of a group of more than 120 donors, volunteers, and sponsors working to find the resources needed to keep exceptional educators on staff through a more demanding teaching schedule.

Since I Promise is a public school, that group also must have worked with Akron’s local teachers’ union to create a plan with which the coalition of teachers could agree. A quick look at the benefits available to those staffers shows the steps James and his cohort are making to attract and retain quality educators. From the Los Angeles Times’ profile on the school:

To truly provide emotional and psychological services for at-risk children and their families requires well-trained and supported teachers. The I Promise School gives teachers access to psychological services. Every Wednesday afternoon will be reserved for career development. James even hired a personal trainer to work with teachers who want a guided workout.

All their supplies also are provided by the school. That was a pleasant surprise for Angela Whorton, an intervention specialist at the I Promise School. She’s been a teacher for 10 years and almost always had to spend her own money to properly stock the classroom.

Ten thousand dollars per student can’t cover those services, but the buy-in from the LeBron James Family Foundation can. That will make I Promise a destination for ambitious teachers in 2018 and beyond.

I Promise is starting in the middle and expanding outward

The school opened Monday with 240 students spread over two grades — third and fourth. From there, it will add second and fifth grades in 2019 and then expand to a first through eighth grade lineup (there are no current plans to offer kindergarten) by 2022. This is going to be massive for the local community, in which education has taken a backseat, as survival has been the goal of many families. We all know that young kids should be free to engage in kids play with their friends, relatives or even whilst watching their favourite Youtubers.

It’s not unusual for new schools to start small and add grades over time. Most start at the beginning with a K-2 or K-3 lineup that introduces students to not only their school and curricula, but also to elementary education as a whole. From there, these institutions typically tack on their later grades year-by-year to accommodate matriculating students and ensure full coverage through the end of eighth or 12th grade.

Starting at third grade is an interesting place to begin. It’s a logical extension of the I Promise Network, the foundation that laid the framework for the school by offering after-school and summer programing for more than 1,200 students in the city beginning after second grade.

It will create some challenges, however.

I Promise School will be getting pupils who have spent their first three or four years in schools Ohio has given an “F†grade for student progress. Those first four years of early development are paramount to a child’s future success. As an oft-cited education adage goes; “before grade three, you’re learning to read. After grade three, you’re reading to learn.†State data suggests Akron’s students as a whole demonstrate below-average literacy skills as K-3 students. This threatens to create lapses in the early stages of of the new school as teachers struggle to accelerate student growth to meet I Promise’s standards.

There are safeguards in place to address this problem and boost these students.

I Promise is going above and beyond to address the non-academic issues that affect classroom performance

One of I Promise’s key tenets is building connections to its students and its community. Creating a comfortable home life is one of the school’s core beliefs, and it stretches beyond just the student. Parents can use the institution’s job and family services, study through its GED program, or design meals at the on-site food bank to cook at home. There are also counselors on staff to help children deal with the trauma that may arise in their daily life.

“I think the missing link in public education is that family wraparound support,†said Brandi Davis, the school’s principal. “Because our students come to school and they’re worried about things at home. … We want to create that safe, that secure and that caring and loving environment for our families and our students so that our kids can focus on education.â€

These students will each receive a bicycle on their first day of class as well — the tool James used to escape dangerous parts of Akron and explore his neighborhood

i promise school

Last December, James laid the mission for his school out to Theresa Cottom of the Akron Beacon-Journal, painting a broad strokes explanation of why his school would be different. link

“We’re going to be on ’em like a school should be because we want them to be successful not only in the school, but successful in life,†James said. “We’re gonna give ’em everything that they need and give them criteria that they all can meet, depending on the individual. But it’s going to be pretty cool to seethe kids at the school the first day we open.â€

Now he’s seen it come to life, and he’s right. It was pretty cool.

Source: SB Nation

6 mins read

Number of Black Owned Beauty Stores on the rise

Temika Morris says customers are usually surprised when they see her, but it brings them a sense of pride to see a black woman owning a beauty-supply store that serves people like her.

The 37-year-old turned her passion for hair into a reality by creating, along with her daughter, Ms. Melanin Beauty Supply and Salon on the Southeast Side in June 2017.

Morris had owned other businesses, but realized she wanted to open one that caters to black women’s beauty needs after a deal fell through on a hair store that she explored with a business broker.

“It is an honor to be able to represent black women who put a lot of the money into this industry,” she said.

There are an estimated 350 to 500 black-owned beauty shops in Ohio, including a handful in the Columbus area, and that number is continuing to rise nationwide, according to the Black-Owned Beauty Supply Association.

Located at 3601 Gender Road, Ms. Melanin Beauty Supply and Salon sells natural hair products, weaves, wigs and accessories. It also sells hair-straightening products, such as relaxers and perms (chemical and non-chemical).

In the past year, the store also has added a fashion boutique and salon services, including hair, eyebrows, eyelashes and makeup services.

The store’s product lines reflect interest among black women in the natural hair movement, which has women embracing their naturally curly hair rather than trying to chemically alter it, Morris said. Many black women look for natural hair products that care for their curls without drying them out, she said.

As the natural-hair movement continues to grow, black consumers are less willing to shop in stores that don’t understand their specific needs, said Sam Ennon, president and CEO of the beauty-supply association.

Black women spent $54 million this past year in the black hair-care industry, according to a 2018 study by Nielsen. Yet black beauty shops are predominantly Korean-American owned, according to the association.

Of the more than 35,000 beauty-supply stores in the United States, about 2,500 are black-owned, compared with more than 7,000 that are Korean-American owned, the group says. Those figures, however, could be changing, Ennon said.

“There is now a rise of black-owned beauty shops because of the want to get back into the business,” he said.

Koreans began to dominate the beauty store industry because they started businesses early on, when hair products were high in demand, said Sam Hwang, vice president of the National Federation of Beauty Suppliers.

“They provided a service where the community could purchase a product they needed,” Hwang said.

Hwang says the number of Korean-owned beauty stores is shrinking because first-generation Korean owners are retiring and closing the stores.

“A lot of the kids don’t want to continue the businesses their parents did,” he said.

The biggest barrier that black beauty entrepreneurs face is that many small businesses do not have the capital to buy bulk inventory and offer products at the lower prices found at bigger beauty stores, according to the Black-Owned Beauty Supply Association.

“People always complain about black-owned businesses being expensive, but they have to understand businesses like us are funding all of this out of one pocket,” said Morris’ daughter, Kayla Morris.

It takes more than just your race to attract customers; it takes knowing and learning about the business, Temika Morris said.

“I don’t want people to support us just because we’re black-owned,” she said. “Support us because we care about our customers.”

Sherman Willis, vice president of Willis Beauty Supply Co. at 1499 E. Livingston Ave. on the South Side, said he’s been running his shop alongside his brother, James Willis, since 1967.

“It has been rewarding, and I can consider it successful that we still have our doors opened,” Willis said.

Rondala Jeffers lives in Canal Winchester and visits Morris’ shop frequently, happy to have a black-owned beauty-supply shop near her.

“The employees are very friendly and make you feel like family,” Jeffers said. “Sometimes, I’ll even come in to just talk to everyone.”

Another customer, Tiffany Jones, who lives in Berwick on Columbus’ East Side, heard about the shop from Facebook, and said she loves that the owner is black.

black owned beauty stores
Temika Morris (right) and a customer (Photo: Eric Albrecht/Dispatch)

“It’s important to have black-owned beauty stores because it’s hard for someone to know what to put in your hair if they don’t know much about it,” Jones said.

Although Temika Morris says her shop still has room to grow — she’d like to expand her inventory — she believes she’s making a difference in her community.

“I’m proud I created this and have been able to sustain it this long,” she said. “It makes me hopeful.”

 

By Tanisha Thomas via The Columbus Dispatch

 

2 mins read

Black Owned Businesses in Ohio That You Should Know

Check out our list of Black owned businesses in Ohio.  Let us know which ones we missed!

Black Owned Businesses in Ohio

Island Frydays is a casual destination for Jamaican jerk chicken, along with seafood, sandwiches & sides.

Eddy’s Chicken and Waffles specialty is Chicken and Waffles but they also have a unique lunch menu that consists of Gyro sandwiches, Philly Cheese, Cheese Burgers and more.

Sweet Petit Desserts is a bakery that offers an array of baked goodness.

Elephant Walk offers Ethiopian & Indian classics served in a roomy, low-key space featuring a full bar with beer on tap.

Junebug Jewelry Designs offers fashionable handmade jewelry for individuals with exceptional style.

Smith & Hannon Bookstore is Cincinnati’s first free standing African American bookstore.

The purpose of Curvy Cardio is to help women embrace their curves (no matter what size) and love their bodies free of body shaming. ​

Joseph Clark Gallery showcases the traditional arts and artifacts of Sub-Saharan Africa. 

NOVE Home & Body Décor is a mobile lifestyle design firm that services professional styling and Interior Design.

Since 1955, the Cincinnati Herald has been the city’s premiere African American newspaper.

Originalitees is a clothing line that specializes in state, city and neighborhood pride apparel.store of Cincinnati apparel for men, women, kids and babies.

Black Owned Businesses

Sewendipity Lounge provides sewing classes in garment construction for the novice and advanced sewer.

Switch  is a modern lighting, furniture and design emporium located in downtown Cincinnati.

Chef Bambina is a catering and private chef company specializing in upscale events.

AlabamaQue is a BBQ joint with a few sit-down tables specializing in Southern-style smoked meats & accompaniments.

LISNR is a technology company that provides a data transmission protocol that utilizes ultrasonic, inaudible technology that sends data over audio.

Replenish provides spa services in the midst of the hustle and bustle of downtown Columbus.

 

Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson aka @thebusyafrican

7 mins read

LISNR: The Black Owned Business that Raised over $10 Million and is Disrupting the Mobile Technology Industry

I have a huge appreciation for disruptive technology. That’s why I was excited to discover LISNR, a Cincinnati based business that is easily one of the most disruptive companies within the mobile communication industry.

I chatted with Rodney Williams, the co-founder and CEO of LISNR.  This is what he had to say:
IMG_0075.2 - Hi res

What is LISNR and how can it be applied in day to day life?

LISNR is the creator of SmartTones, a new communication protocol to connect devices.  It is similar to Bluetooth, however we simply use sound to generate second screen experiences, drive proximity marketing campaigns and to connect devices.

Think of all of the places you’ve been in the last 24 hours.  Now, think about how many of those places have a speaker infrastructure.  Your car, Starbucks, your office, your computer, your TV – with LISNR, all of these places and devices now have the ability to send data over audio.

We can send promotional offers while standing in line for coffee.  We can replay a huge play you missed when you got up from your seat at a sporting event.  We can deliver an interactive game through your television while you’re sitting on your couch watching Walking Dead.

 

You left your job at Procter & Gamble to pursue this business idea. How did you know it was the right decision to make?

I knew that LISNR had the potential to change the world.

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You were born without hearing. Thankfully, your hearing is now restored.  Is that part of what inspired you to create a company that uses inaudible sound waves?

Yes, it was absolutely part of the inspiration behind the company.  Being born partly deaf has forced me to always examine how I solve problems.  That ability to problem solve has allowed me to approach real-world challenges in entirely new ways.

I always look at the world from the other end of the telescope – and doing so, gives me the ability to see things some people can’t.  As an example, when I started thinking about how to interact with consumers while they are shopping – I thought, “Why not use this ubiquitous medium (sound) that’s all around us??”  It was that question that ultimately led me to start LISNR.

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You recently raised $10 million from Intel Capital. Before that you raised $4.4 million from Mercury Fund, Jump Capital and Sierra Capital. What do you feel makes your business attractive to investors?

I think that investors see the potential that this company could have at scale, and they believe deeply in the team we’ve built.  If you think about it, the real potential for LISNR is beyond the amazing work we are doing with people like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Visa.

The fact of the matter is that LISNR provides a utility to connect devices – and when every device, appliance and gadget coming to market today is connected to the internet – that means very powerful things for LISNR.

Additionally, we’ve been able to attract some of the brightest minds in the world to work on this technology from places like P&G, Gracenote, Yahoo, Lockheed Martin and more.  That says a lot on it’s own.

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Where do you see yourself and your company in 10 years?  

Take out your phone and open the menu.  Do you see that Wifi icon?  The Bluetooth icon?  Soon, LISNR will live right next to those…in the hardware on hundreds of millions of devices around the world.

 

Besides not needing hardware to perform like Bluetooth – how does your brand enhance the customer experience better than other similar brands on the market?

I could go on and on about the advantages of LISNR over other technology in the market.  No hardware, exceptionally better coverage, no wifi, no app open and running, little battery drain, so on and so forth.

I think the reason that we continue to win in the market is that LISNR gives brands, retailers, teams a new, scalable way to reach consumers with contextually relevant information at the moment that matters.

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What are your growth plans? Do you plan to use this technology for military or medical device communications?

What I love about LISNR is that we are relentlessly focused on building our core technology.  When we are able to be so focused on doing one thing with excellence and open our technology up to other bright people to build on, we are constantly surprised by the new use cases people come up with.
Yes, we absolutely plan to see SmartTones in use in the military and in medicine.  Some projects are already in motion – but that’s classified 🙂

What advice do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs?

Prove people wrong.  I don’t want that to be taken as negative – but I love the doubters.  I love the naysayers.  I’m motivated to show the world what I know to be true.

Tony O. Lawson


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