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Minority business leaders share the 'recipe for success' at Chattanooga Urban League's annual luncheon


Nine out of 10 start-ups fail, yet figures show that roughly 68% of entrepreneurs think their idea is better than others in the industry, said Eric Foster, who was the moderator for the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga's sixth annual "Entrepreneur Power Luncheon" on Tuesday.

What makes one business succeed and another fail? Minority business owners and leaders in Chattanooga and Tennessee shared their thoughts on what they think the recipe for success is at the luncheon.

For the Williams family, owners of Memo's Grill – the longest-operating black-owned restaurant on M.L. King Boulevard – it's knowing that a person is never too young to dream and never too old to try. Memo's Grill was honored with the "Legacy Award" by the Urban League on Tuesday.

For KeeKee Mathis, the supplier diversity manager for Volkswagen of Chattanooga, success means knowing your value and worth as an employee or entrepreneur, she said. Mathis won the "Impact Achievement Award" for her work at Volkswagen and for increasing diversity among suppliers from 8 percent to 14 percent in just five years.

Volkswagen of Chattanooga also won the "Corporate Procurement Policy Award" for the company's "intentional efforts" to recruit a more diverse workforce.

"I feel honored and humbled to win this award, but diversity is hard work and we all have to put in our part and do our part," said Mathis after the ceremony.

"D" and "I" doesn't just stand for "diversity" and "inclusion," it stands for "deliberate" and "intentional" too, Mathis said.

"We have to do our part as a community, we have to do our part as a region and as a nation to make ourselves successful," she added.

Sam Tisdale of Root's Hair & Beauty was also honored with the "Minority Business of the Year" award.

Urban League's mission is to help African Americans and other minorities, and in 2011, the local chapter launched the Entrepreneurship Center to market, service and grow women and minority-owned businesses in the city.

A 2017 report from the Mayor's Minority Business Task Force cited one of the biggest needs for minority entrepreneurs is access to capital. In fall of last year, the Company Lab, backed by the city and other community foundations, launched the Kiva program.

The online platform allows people to provide loans to entrepreneurs to get their ideas off the ground, and Katie Hendrix, the program manager for Kiva in Chattanooga, said Kiva is designed "to eradicate financial exclusion" and broaden access to capital for people in all classes, industries and locations.

For Slim & Husky's Pizza Beeria co-owners and black entrepreneurs E.J. Reed, Clint Gray and Derrick Moore, it's "extremely hard work" and "teamwork with a purpose."

"Make sure that once you become successful that you reach back and bring somebody with you," said Gray, earning a round of applause from the crowd.

The Nashville business owners gave the keynote at the Urban League luncheon, describing how the three friends and co-owners first started an eco-friendly moving company in 2010, not knowing anything about the moving industry, and grew it from three men and one truck to 50 employees, nine trucks and $2 million in revenue. After selling that company, they decided they wanted to get into the restaurant business next.

"Taking the entrepreneurial route is not always the way parents or other people might want you (take)," said Reed. "We took a chance. We had a lot of pushback."

It has seemingly worked out, though. The trio opened their first Slim & Husky's pizza restaurant location in north Nashville in 2017 in an area that was "rapidly gentrifying" and hadn't seen a lot of investment compared to other areas of the city. They now have four locations with their most recent one opening in Atlanta.

Moore said that it's important that every entrepreneur does their research and knows their business and the market.

"We got into these food deserts, and it's obvious that there's people in these food deserts that need food, they need opportunities, they need places to eat or shop or buy and we provide that," he said. "We understand that that's the recipe for our success."

Contact staff writer Allison Shirk Collins at [email protected], @AllisonSCollins or 423-757-6651.