A century ago, Dayton helped drive the global economy with inventions that changed the world – think, the airplane, the cash register, pop-top cans, the self-starting engine. In our series Scratch, WYSO explores some of the people and ideas that could impact life and the economy in the Miami Valley and beyond.
The series was inspired by a simple question: where is Dayton’s famous spirit of invention still alive and well in the Miami Valley? And, who benefits?
The big players in the Miami Valley’s tech and innovation space include some household names, such as the Air Force Research Lab, the University of Dayton Research Institute and Procter and Gamble.
But what about regular people with a good business idea or invention but not a lot of money? How easy is it for them to get their ideas off the ground?
“That’s one of the best questions I’ve ever heard and something that I’ve been frustrated with in Dayton for the last 10 years,” says Rocky Belcher, professor of entrepreneurship at Sinclair Community College.
Despite Dayton’s reputation for promoting innovation, Belcher says there’s not a lot of financing for entrepreneurs with mom-and-pop business ideas. There’s more capital available, he says, for multimillion or even billion-dollar ideas.
“There seems to be enough investment money for the next great thing that has a one-in-one-thousand chance of actually being something. There's very little out there for people who have a good small business idea,” he says.
I meet Belcher at one of a growing list of venues in the city with events aimed at helping wannabe entrepreneurs turn their ideas into reality.
One of these events happens every month at Third Perk Coffeehouse and Wine Bar in downtown Dayton. It's called the Perk-E-Lator.
At a recent Perk-E-Lator, a DJ spins records as a few dozen people sit with drinks and snacks at tables along one side of the cafe waiting for the show to begin.
Emcee Juanita-Michelle Darden-Jones, who goes by Juanita-Michelle, opens the show with a few remarks.
“Hello, everybody! Welcome to the Perk-E-Lator. I am Juanita-Michelle, the owner of Third Perk Coffeehouse and Wine Bar and Third Perk Express. I'm also an assistant professor at Sinclair Community College, where I teach mathematics. So, go Tartans and welcome to all you guys here.”
Darden-Jones created the Perk-E-Lator. She jokes that it’s a “friendlier” version of the ABC reality show Shark Tank.
The Perk-E-Lator gives aspiring Miami Valley entrepreneurs just 90 seconds to stand up in front of an audience and pitch their ideas to a special panel of judges, typically a mix of people with real-world business expertise.
Darden-Jones has launched a few businesses of her own, including the Third Perk coffee chain.
On this night, she’s also serving as a judge.
“I'm going to let the wonderful women, who are here to support us and to support you and to give you great feedback, introduce themselves and then we'll get started with the first panelist,” she says as she takes her seat.
Darden-Jones’ fellow judges sit side by side in armchairs at the front of the cafe.
“I am Keeyana Avery. I am the founder and owner of Agency Seven public relations, which is a boutique PR firm that offers PR and marketing services to businesses and brands to help them tell their story effectively to the audiences that matter to them.
“And I'm LeKeisha Grant. I'm the publisher of Ambition Magazine, which is dedicated to small businesses and entrepreneurs. It is honestly built to promote you.”
With a round of applause, the pitching begins. One by one, five brave would be entrepreneurs stand up in front of the room. Each business is at a different stage of development.
“I've been an auto mechanic since I was 14 years old. There's not a mechanic in Dayton that can take advantage of me,” says Lillian Caudill, who brings the house down when she announces the name of her proposed brick-and-mortar business: Wenches With Wrenches.
“How many of you have a mom or a grandma or yourself who has been taken advantage of at an auto mechanic shop? We all say yes. That’s where we come in. We're going to be female-run, female-owned and cater to women,” Caudill says.
After Caudill’s pitch, Darden-Jones introduces the final panelist.
“Our last participant is Jimmy Donald.”
“My business is Man Around The House Maintenance, acronym MATH Maintenance. We do everything from heating, cooling and plumbing, to all basic small maintenance, to remodeling, specializing in bathrooms.”
Donald tells the judges he started the home-repair business after hitting a rough patch in his life.
“I moved here to Dayton from Michigan after serving a few years in a Michigan correctional facility and I was living in a van with my dog. I'm a former Marine also so I took my post 9/11 bill and got some certifications in heating, cooling and plumbing,” he says.
Donald’s pitch explains how he keeps overhead low by working with his brother. His strategy focuses on word of mouth, and building loyalty by providing quality work at affordable prices, he says.
“I'm bringing a baloney sandwich and my little brother will be with me until I get him to where he able to start his own business. We don’t overcharge,” he says. “We're going to work with what I need, not what I can get.”
The minister in training is also motivated by a deeper need to give back, and that’s what led him to pitch at the Perk-E-Lator. He tells the judges he’s seeking funding to expand another part of his home-repair business.
“Unbreakable Soul Enterprises is what it's called. The bigger plan of Unbreakable Soul Enterprises is finding young brothers who have come from where I come from, finding their skill set and building a business around them,” he says.
Donald says working with Man Around The House Maintenance would provide young men with a much-needed steady paycheck and a resume of in-demand job skills. He’s banking on a hope –– that spending time with African American male role models could also help struggling young men avoid following Jimmy’s own path to incarceration.
The timer sounds. The room erupts in clapping as Jimmy wraps up his pitch, saying he’s already started mentoring several young people from his neighborhood, hiring them for jobs and teaching them basic repair skills.
As Donald returns to his seat, judge Lekiesha Grant offers some emotional feedback.
“I am extremely interested in Unbreakable Soul because almost every male in my family has been incarcerated. So, I appreciate what you're doing. I just want to encourage you to see if you can become a part of the system in a positive way so that these young men can go through you and be mentored, so that they can come out and begin to make money,” she says.
She asks Donald how he’s met the young men who are already working as apprentices.
“It's been god. I just meet people along the way. I don't know your story but I know what it's like to need somebody to talk to. And I just want to show you guys that came from where I came from that you can be on a level playing field. You just got to work a little harder, but that’s what it is,” he says.
Last year the Perk-E-Lator heard pitches from more than two dozen people.
Tonight’s participants will have the opportunity to move on to the so-called Dreamers Gala, an annual fundraising event Darden-Jones launched in 2015 to support budding entrepreneurs.
Winners at the gala could walk away with up to $5,000 in grants. Darden-Jones says she knows that’s only a fraction of the funding new businesses need to get off the ground. But as an entrepreneur, she knows every little bit counts.
To qualify for the gala, Perk-E-Lator participants must complete a list of requirements, including submitting a detailed business plan to the judges.
Outside enjoying some fresh air, Sinclair professor Belcher says that’s the kind of preparation it takes for wannabe entrepreneurs to make it in business.
“Everyone has an idea. Ideas don't really cut it in this world,” he says. “You have to actually sit down and do your homework, put together the actual marketing plan, the financial plan, the business plan. You have to show the banker that you're thinking three years down the road, five years down the road, not just, what am I going to do the day that I open.”
Even with preparation, he says, the odds of making it are steep. Belcher notes data show the average entrepreneur has just a one-in-five chance of success.
The Perk-E-Lators are held on the first Monday of every month at 6 p.m. at Third Perk Coffeehouse in downtown Dayton.
WYSO's Scratch series introduces us to some of the innovative entrepreneurs, tinkerers and technologists working in and around Dayton. To learn more about the project and contribute your own ideas about innovation, click here.