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bottom line: tri-c program aims to grow small business into big deals















Small business is a recovering economy's pony motor, a cash-producing engine its supporters contend has enough juice to kick-start the country's financial fortunes. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, entrepreneur-created ventures have generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years. 
 
Cuyahoga Community College has tapped into that energy via Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, a $500 million initiative to help new business owners create jobs and economic opportunity. The program shepherds small companies nationwide through workshops, one-to-one advice, mentoring, capital and networking. Launched locally in May 2012, the effort has committed $15 million for small business loans, business education and grants for supporting community partners.
 
Currently operating in a dozen cities, the program requires that participants have a minimum of four employees and annual revenues between $150,000 and $4 million. In December, 10,000 Small Businesses at Tri-C graduated 36 Cleveland-area entrepreneurs, among them an organic lawn care company and a professional DJ service.
 
Last fall's class was the fourth to complete the program, says Joe Gross, director of Tri-C's Goldman Sachs initiative. While financial prerequisites must be met, the program is not industry specific. Catering, insurance, manufacturing, legal services and pet care are just a few of the endeavors that have spun out of the class.
 
"Adding jobs to the region is the mission," says Gross. "The key ingredient is an owner who's motivated with a desire to grow."
 
The school official thinks of the program as a "mini-MBA." Participants spend 12 weeks on Tri-C's metro campus fast-tracking through a customized business and management curriculum designed by Babson College, a top-ranked school for entrepreneurial education. They learn how to manage money and employees while also gleaning critical knowledge about marketing and leadership from Goldman Sachs' professionals.
 
"This is not a lecture series," Gross says. "The entire time these [students] are working on their companies."

Success, the Spice of Life

Ben Bebenroth, chef-owner of Spice Kitchen & Bar in the Gordon Square Arts District, was among the three dozen would-be success stories to take part in the program's most recent graduating class. The Strongsville native opened his award-winning restaurant in 2012 after 10 years in catering. Offering a seasonally shifting menu of locally produced cuisine, Spice has captured a clientele hankering for eclectic farm-to-table eats.
 
Bebenroth, a former Marine helicopter mechanic, learned the culinary trade from some of Cleveland's best chefs. Gary Thomas, owner of Ohio City Pasta, hipped Bebenroth to the Tri-C program after an inaugural year that found Spice in the red.  
 
Losing money early on is the nature of any grassroots business, but the newbie restaurateur wasn't content to wait for a turnaround. His small business education began with an assignment requiring students to share their revenue figures with the class. Admittedly not a "numbers guy," he had experts help him piece together a budgetary puzzle.
 
"We were sharing our profits and problems with no judgment," he says. "I was texting my bookkeeper on the first day."
 
Another module trained Bebenroth on personnel management. Relaying his outsized, enthusiastic personality during kitchen meetings was not always appropriate, he learned.
 
"The whole program's a mindset shift," Bebenroth says. "The restaurant's an efficient machine -- more of a business, less of a clubhouse."
 
Dyed in the Wool Design
 
The sharing of successes and struggles through the program was manna to Rose Corrick, owner of Art of Cloth, a Bainbridge-based design studio and manufacturing facility. "We became a tight-knit group," she says. "Everyone learned from each other."
 
What Corrick learned was responsibility, both for herself and those she employs. "I'm an artist with a head for business, but accountability has never been my strong suit," Corrick says. "That's what I'm bringing back to this company."
 
The Solon resident launched her business in 2004, leaving behind a lucrative position in interior design. She started making high-end, hand-dyed fashions in her basement, and in 2008 moved operations to a light industrial area. Corrick survived the 2008 recession and now creates up to 200 handmade garments daily for 500 wholesale customers.
 
"Bringing art to a commercial venue," as Corrick refers to her work, is a nonstop learning process. The small business owner came to Tri-C from the Ladies Who Launch incubator, and was immediately taken by the course's fast-paced nature.
 
Besides accountability, Corrick gleaned strategies to plan and evaluate where her venture is going, and not just in the coming years but also the point when she would transition out of the company.
 
"It's more about working on the business than in the business," Corrick says. "There's no manual to show you how to navigate the process. The [Tri-C] program was invaluable for that."
 
Rise of the 'Little Guy'
 
Though the course is still young, director Gross is pleased that 35 percent of program grads have experienced job growth. While Tri-C would like this figure to increase, there is good news already emerging from last fall's class: Spice Kitchen was voted by Cleveland Magazine as the city's best new restaurant for 2013, and Corrick is busy building a retail line and website called ArtfulSister.com, set to re-launch next month with a blog and other new features.
 
"Everyone can use a program like this," says Gross. "We've proven to be successful, it's just a matter of companies knowing about us."
 
With Cleveland recently hit by the loss of Bank of America and the United Airlines hub, the little guy will have a major role in rebuilding the job market, believes Bebenroth.
 
"What's going to replace those jobs?" he asks. "People like me."
 

Special Edition

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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