February 2023

Opportunities expanding for women of color who seek help with career goals in Columbus

Zora’s House broke ground this month on a new, larger coworking space, the latest effort to ensure that as Columbus grows and attracts new businesses, women of color can share in that prosperity.

By Eric Lagatta
The Columbus Dispatch

Brenda Thomas’s dream was finally realized in 2019 when she was able to start her own business selling herbal teas and balms online and at popup events.

But with no brick-and-mortar location of her own, Thomas, 42, spent much time working from home — and with five kids to care for, that often proved challenging. It could be isolating, too, for a Black business owner looking to build connections with others in Greater Columbus.

Fortunately, the Reynoldsburg resident found what she needed at Zora’s House in Weinland Park, where a few months ago she joined a community of women of color focused on supporting one another while developing professionally.

“The sisterhood alone is something I never experienced before, how they branch around you and they gather around you with love, with encouragement, with resources,” said Thomas, whose business is called Healing Garden Cafe. “It’s something I’d never experienced before in my community growing up in Columbus.”

Thomas joined Zora’s House at a time when the nonprofit — which since 2018 has offered a co-working space to women of color on Summit Street — was eyeing expansion. Earlier this month, leaders broke ground on a multi-million dollar 10,000-square-foot facility slated to open in early 2024 in Weinland Park.

That expansion is part of founder and CEO LC Johnson’s mission to ensure that as Greater Columbus grows and attracts new businesses such as Intel to the area, women of color can join in that prosperity. And it’s a vision other area organizations — including the Columbus Urban League — share as they prioritize similar programs and spaces.

“The work that we do, it’s for the women of color, but it’s also for our community so Columbus and central Ohio can say, ‘We see you, and we’re going to invest in you,’” Johnson said. “It feels important that women of color in this community see things that are being built for them, that are representative of their unique needs.”

America’s fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs

Statistics show that women of color are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States.

Companies owned by them increased 43% between 2014 and 2019, far outpacing the 21% increase by women-owned businesses in general, according to the State of Women-Owned Businesses Report by American Express. Black women-owned businesses grew even faster at 50%.

The Ohio RISE Survey released at the end of 2020 by the Alliance of Black Businesswomen & Entrepreneurs (ABBE) Ohio, found the most pressing needs for Black women business owners at the time were access to capital, greater business operational support (including technical assistance) and an equitable opportunity to get private and public contracts.

It’s a need the Columbus Urban League has sought to address through its growing programming.

Supporting minority-owned businesses at the Columbus Urban League

This month, the Urban League received a $3 million investment over the next three years from JPMorgan Chase to fund its new Accelerate Her initiative. With plans to provide education, support, access to capital and contracting opportunities for Black and minority-owned Columbus businesses, the program is envisioned as the next evolution of its Incubate Her program, according to Stephanie Hightower, president and CEO.

Incubate Her, which began in 2020 during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic amid a racial justice movement that followed the murder of George Floyd, has provided women of color with training and resources to open new businesses or grow fledgling ones over a 12-week period. As Incubate Her prepares to welcome its latest cohort of 25 women this month, Hightower said Accelerate Her is focused on helping them sustain and grow those ventures.

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