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Conversation with Local Entrepreneurs About Their Journey

On Friday, February 24th, we went to a City Club luncheon which featured "a conversation with local entrepreneurs about their journey from startup to exit-where a startup becomes significant enough to be acquired and investors reap a return-and the changing narrative of Northeast Ohio's economy." The entrepreneurs featured were Mr. Stephen McHale, CEO, "Explorys", an IBM Company, and Mr. Steve Potash, President and CEO, "Overdrive, Inc." which was bought out by Japan's "Rakuten" in 2015. Joining them in the conversation, which was moderated by Ms. Janet H. Cho,"Plain Dealer" business reporter, was Ms. Jennifer L. Stapleton, Attorney with "Jones Day" who has worked on all kinds of business transactions including buyouts.

Mr. McHale and Mr. Potash, who once had offices in the same building, discussed the challenges they experienced in starting up their businesses including establishing productive partnerships, acquiring capital and talented employees, and how fortunate they are to be here in Northeast Ohio because the community because they believed that the community has been tremendously supportive of them. Both Mr. McHale and Mr. Potash believed that they were blessed to be in a location with so much local talent; in fact, when asked if the Trump administration's potential cutback of H1B Visas would affect their talent pool, Mr. McHale thought that such action would hurt some but not be a "huge hit" for Cleveland. To be sure, he knew some people who would be affected but not too many. He advocated putting more resources into our local schools to help young people realize their potential. And Mr. Potash has worked extensively with the local libraries which he deemed an outstanding learning resource.  

In terms of local support, Mr. Charles Stack, Co-Founder and CEO of "Flashstarts", as well as Ms. Stapleton, pointed out though that despite the good experiences of Mr. McHale and Mr. Potash, the Cleveland community could be even more supportive of startups in general than it has been. Mr. Stack quoted a study that indicated that out of 40 cities surveyed, Cleveland ranked 37 in terms of startup support.

We, ourselves, asked Ms. Stapleton how she liked working with immigrant entrepreneurs and she replied that she loved working with all entrepreneurs but what she really liked about immigrant and/or first generation entrepreneurs was the "hustle, energy, discipline, and drive" that they possess because they chose to come here and they are here for a reason.

When asked what advice the panelists would give to budding entrepreneurs Mr. Potash said that it was very important to believe in one's business and product. Of course, one must be flexible in terms of his/her company's business mode and be willing to listen to others and accept good advice. Ms. Stapleton said that one must be prepared to constantly "network" for new ideas and customers. And Mr. McHale echoed the others and added that an entrepreneur must believe in his/her business and have a purpose. He added that Cleveland can win and come out ahead because it is a purpose driven community.

Prior to the start of the program, we talked to Mr. Stack and Ms. Lang Xu, Director of Global Investor Relations for "Flashstarts" about how successful the networking event for the "Greater Cleveland Chinese Chamber of Commerce" had been earlier in the week and both of them were proud to have hosted it at their offices.

What really made the afternoon for us, however, were the young entrepreneurs still in high school (or younger) who were proudly displaying their wares in the City Club lobby. We talked to Ms. Victoria Broer, Special Initiatives Officer, with the "Burton D. Morgan Foundation" who told us that they were there as part of the "Young Entrepreneur Market" which is housed at University School and funded by the foundation that she represents.

These young people included:

***Mr. Andrew Benisek and Mr. Seamus Cooney, from St. Ignatius High School, who founded "Ohio Valley Beverage" which distributes customized drinks to high schools and special events.

***Mr. Sam Heller from University School who formed his own business selling phone chargers.

***Mr. Mike Rentz, Mr. Zack Heller, and Miss Christina Garcia who from Fairport Harbor High School who launched "Hooked on Education" which provides its customers with fishing tackle which the three of them partially created themselves.

***A few students from Cuyahoga Falls High School; lead by Mr. Andrew Bahmer, a dynamic teenager if there ever was one; who formed a partnership with "Metropolis" to sell gourmet popcorn. We got to sample and to rate the flavors which were rocky road, apple pie, carmel vanilla foster, french toast, caramel marshmallow, and jalapeno bacon.

***And finally, Ms. Bethany Husna, a very charming young lady who was selling hair scrunchies that she made herself. We bought one for a friend of ours. As a devout Christian, she was inspired to name her business "31:25" in recognition of Proverbs 31:25. We looked up this Bible verse which read: "Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future."



Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC