Allen Woods, a managing partner and creative director at Mortar in Cincinnati, spoke July 19 at InnoPower, a two-day conference at the Indiana Convention Center designed to highlight innovations in minority communities, about how social entrepreneurs should go about their business so it can last and have a positive impact.
Woods, who is also a photographer, broke his advice down into five categories: access, timing, capital, perspective and focus.
Woods said his start in the creative arts and entrepreneurship are in large part thanks to access. He met the late Black photographer Gordon Parks as a child at a children’s museum and eventually asked his parents for a camera after reading a Parks quote about how cameras can be “a weapon” against poverty and racism.
Now, Mortar is that access point for some people. The organization helps entrepreneurs in underserved areas in Cincinnati so the talent that’s already in those communities can be used for good, rather than risking them leaving for opportunities elsewhere.
Photography is about timing, Woods said, and just as it can ruin an otherwise perfect photo, timing can also make it better. Woods showed a photo he took of a man standing in front of a monument, with a bird swooping in from the top. It’s something that would have been impossible to plan for, but the chance encounter made the photo more interesting.
Woods said he meets people regularly who want to rush what they’re doing, but he warned that is a mistake.
“Even when things don’t line up today,” he said, “it doesn’t mean they won’t if you keep working.”
Woods spoke about the importance of finding a source of capital, whether it’s something that’s already there or still needs to be created. As a unique example, he told attendees about a brewer in Cincinnati who let the community buy in so they could be partial owners. Both sides — the businessman and the community — benefited from this.
Woods said getting multiple perspectives on a problem or potential solution is a good thing and that just because two people have different perspectives, it doesn’t have to mean one of them is wrong.
He also spoke about the perception often placed on Black men and women from the outside in an attempt to keep them in a tidy box.
“In this world we’re told that if we don’t look like struggle, then we’re selling out,” said Woods, adding that sometimes there can be beauty in the struggle.
Using photography as an example again, Woods showed a photo that was slightly out of focus, but he said he liked it so much that he kept it anyway. Woods said that’s a healthy outlook to have in entrepreneurship, especially when it comes to trying to make a positive impact in communities.
“Everything is not gonna be perfect,” he said. “Everything is not gonna feel fine tuned. … But that doesn’t mean that you don’t move forward just because it’s not perfect.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.