A Cincinnati Nonprofit Instills a Sense of Usefulness to Help End the Cycle of Poverty
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
Number of employees: 2
Clients served annually: 150-210
Launch of the Ice House curriculum: 2015
Cincinnati has a reputation as a powerhouse in terms of Fortune 500 company headquarters, an up-and-coming destination for startups. The metro area also faces ongoing challenges with equity and opportunity for all its residents. The Greater Cincinnati Microenterprise Initiative addresses those gaps by providing economic empowerment opportunities to low- and moderate-income individuals and communities.
GCMI is one of roughly 1,000 community development financial institutions in the U.S.. It is also one of only about 50 led by Blacks, according to Executive Director Willie Hill III. It’s a full-service CDFI that helps small businesses access capital and develop the skill sets they’ll need to thrive. It also offers micro-lending and business development training. And for the past seven years, it has grown its focus on developing entrepreneurial mindsets among the individuals and businesses it serves each year.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the focus among CDFIs was to encourage would-be entrepreneurs to start and run businesses. That was true at GCMI when Hill arrived as a business coach. And it was still true when his colleague Tracey Hayes, who coordinates the Entrepreneurial Training Academy, came in 2012 after working at a nonprofit incubator and in higher education.
Hill noticed that some of GCMI’s students weren’t taking action and moving toward launching their own startups despite having all the preparation they seemed to need on the business side. Most of the people GCMI serves are single parents. They’re usually Black or Brown, and they’re always looking for ways to supplement their income and better their financial quality of life.
“They sometimes feel like this is one of their last options,” Hill said. “It’s not—but they don’t know what their other options are.” They often run into obstacles in their jobs, have been passed over for promotions, or had to leave the workforce to care for their families. “Maybe they’ve been told they didn’t have what it takes to advance,” Hayes added. Over time, they’ve lost confidence.
In 2015, a brainstorming conversation with Hill about what their programs might be overlooking prompted Hayes to dive into research on approaches other organizations use in other cities. That’s when she discovered the Ice House model. It caught her eye immediately because it seemed to address the missing element at GCMI.
As soon as Hill attended an Ice House facilitator training, “it clicked with me how important it is for people in poverty to address the mindset first,” he said. Most of the individuals GCMI serves have lived through cycles of poverty and are ready to find a way to become self-sufficient. “People come to us looking for hope, and they have already exhausted so many options in terms of where they can get help,” he said.
Hayes, who is also certified as an Ice House facilitator, is the first point of contact for people looking to enroll in a GCMI program. She’s also their last point of contact when they finish. In between, they might attend a 3-day boot camp version of the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program, or they may take the course over 5, 8, or 16 weeks.
GCMI’s team is careful not to overpromise on the benefits. “We’re not here to solve their problems or make them business owners,” Hayes said. “Some are not cut out for it.” Instead, they talk about how having an entrepreneurial mindset can also help participants be better employees, push harder toward the next promotion, make better decisions, and look for additional resources.
“I believe everyone has entrepreneurial ability,” Hill said. “The skill sets of problem-solving and critical thinking—everybody has those capabilities, but they just haven’t been engaged. We’ve seen firsthand how an entrepreneurial mindset helps with confidence and makes people more curious about how they can solve problems.”
Many participants say they practice applying their new skills at home. “Now that they’ve got an entrepreneurial set of eyes, they see the world so much differently,” Hayes said. “They read the fine print. They evaluate issues and take their time making decisions. They seek additional resources. They’re not staying stagnant.”
GCMI formerly measured success in terms of business starts per year. Only one out of six participants meet that metric—and often, it can take years to get there due to the challenges they face. To illustrate that point, Hayes shared the story of a mother of two children working two jobs and caring for her elderly grandfather but dreamed of opening a veterans’ home.
Starting in 2018, she worked toward that goal methodically. She completed all the GCMI entrepreneurship classes, transitioned to a new job at a Veterans Administration healthcare facility in Cincinnati, bought a house, and finally started bringing in residents. She recently opened a second home—confirmation that her business is succeeding.
But Hill and Hayes would argue that she embodied success long before. She had adopted the entrepreneurial mindset that sustained her on the long journey to fulfilling her dream. “Documenting results is not an immediate process,” Hayes said. “It’s ongoing and requires follow-up and engagement.”
About four years ago, just after implementing the Ice House model, Hill and Hayes started to notice patterns of behavior change and differences in executive functioning and personality assessments. “We have so many systems we’re using to capture the data and demographics, but none captures the mindset impact,” Hayes reflected.
They’ve also noticed that even when participants achieve their financial goals, the result doesn’t always look how they imagined it would. Paradoxically, sometimes that can feel like a failure, especially when the outcome doesn’t include small business ownership.
For example, one young man who completed the training in 2019 intending to be a personal fitness trainer and start his own gym ended up being recruited to be a fitness manager at a local chain. “He became one of the top salespeople in the company using the Ice House approach,” Hill said. “He doubled his income. Yet he thought he was a failure on the business side.”
Experiences like those gave Hill and Hayes new insights into how to talk about success. “We’ve learned we need to communicate that it’s not about starting a business. Being an entrepreneur is all about utilizing your skillset to be able to do whatever you want,” Hill said. “That’s become GCMI’s approach, and it’s been a change for me as an executive director.”
It’s been a change for some of the nonprofit’s funders too. Hill has had to pivot to new funding streams whose vision matches GCMI’s intensified focus on mindset.
Hill and Hayes continue to explore assessments like the Entrepreneurial Mindset Profile to bring more definition to their impact. Because the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program is just one of their offerings, they can’t spend all their time on it. But they’re optimistic GCMI is on the right track in effectively supporting individuals in making changes in their lives and being more self-sufficient.
“Being an entrepreneur helps you realize your usefulness in the world,” Hill explained. “Purpose is big, but usefulness is more relevant to how we interact with the world and how the world sees us. I try to remember that as we create a safe environment for people to learn and talk about their ideas without any judgment.”