Camaraderie and connection are watchwords for new dedicated Downtown Cleveland entrepreneur space
EO Cleveland, the local chapter of Virginia-based nonprofit The Entrepreneurs’ Organization, is nothing if not incredibly active. The peer-to-peer networking group hosts over 600 events annually, a packed calendar that includes learning sessions, mentoring events and informal get-togethers designed to give budding entrepreneurs the support they need to succeed.
Finding meeting space without a centralized location has been a constant challenge for the 25-year-old organization. Scheduling nearly two events each day required borrowing office space from strategic partners, or finding room at an area coffee house or restaurant.
Under these conditions, the only logical step for EO Cleveland was to get a home of its own, said Adam Fleischer, owner of The Wine Spot in Cleveland Heights and an EO Cleveland member since 2015.
Idea became reality in early September when EO Cleveland opened its 5,000-square-foot Think Big Space in a renovated downtown office building at 1020 Bolivar Road. Joined by chapter members from throughout the Midwest – as well as Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb – Cleveland attendees celebrated what will ideally become a 24/7 business hub, said Fleischer.
“Coming out of COVID, people wanted to get back together,” Fleischer said. “We had people who hadn’t seen each other in two years. We realized that to set our legacy for the future, we had to have our own space.”
EO Cleveland’s new office sits between East 9th Street and East 14th Street across from Progressive Field. The centralized location will be used for formal programming and casual gatherings alike – a rooftop patio provides a view of the ballfield and other area landmarks. Having a dedicated space in Cleveland’s downtown highlights the organization’s unique standing amid a plethora of regional small business groups, said Fleischer.
“In Northeast Ohio, there are amazing organizations like (Goldman Sachs) 10,000 Small Businesses that are great resources for entrepreneurs and bring a lot of value,” Fleischer said.
“What I like about EO is that it’s a global entrepreneur program. It’s probably the most impactful program for business owners, because there’s 200 chapters in 70 countries and we’re hitting 18,000 members. It’s very well connected.”
About 450 global EO members are in the food and beverage industry, giving Fleischer a vast sounding board when issues arise at his retail beer and wine business.
“At EO, someone has dealt with something I’ve dealt with or will be dealing with,” said Fleischer. “For me, it’s easy to reach out into that microcosm and get some guidance. If I call someone in India, Hong Kong or Canada and say I’m from EO, they’re going to pick up the phone. That’s a powerful aspect of the program.”
Making ‘fast friends’
EO Cleveland members are founders or majority owners with $1 million in annual revenue. Applicants with $250,000 in revenue can also participate in an accelerator program designed to take their businesses to the $1 million threshold. Members have equal standing, although a board of directors is assigned with running the group’s day-to-day operations. As a nonprofit, EO Cleveland self-funds programming via an annual fee.
Daniel Richards, CEO of Brunswick-based coolant and lubricant supplier Chemical Methods, has been with EO Cleveland for 23 years. Whereas efforts like 10,000 Small Businesses offer annual conferences, that vision of connection is already baked into the EO model.
Monthly forum meetings link members to fellow business owners who emphasize lessons learned during their entrepreneurial journey. Forum leaders pointedly do not give advice, instead letting members draw their own conclusions on how to best proceed, said Richards.
“The difference between us and other places is our organization features the ‘man in the ring,’” said Richards. “I’m learning lessons from people who are doing what I’m doing. Our ethos is about the experience share. The value is learning about how other people deal with similar situations.”
Richards said venture capital groups like JumpStart focus mainly on tech startups rather than the larger entrepreneurial ecosystem. With ownership being a sometimes lonely endeavor, the camaraderie fostered at EO Cleveland goes beyond spreadsheets and bottom lines, said Richards.
“When you’re an entrepreneur, you can get isolated, and your world gets smaller,” Richards said. “But when you stumble on a group where there’s 50 other people just like you, you’re delighted. They understand what you’re going through, and you’re just fast friends immediately.”
A home field advantage
EO Cleveland officials finalized plans for the Think Big Space in May 2022, and plan to share the century-old building with Leopardo Companies, a Chicago firm focused on retail, office and municipal projects. Only three other chapters nationwide – Austin, San Diego and New York – have spaces devoted specifically to EO activities, noted Wine Spot owner Fleischer.
Leading members including Fleischer visited the three offices during Think Big’s research phase. The San Diego headquarters is 30 minutes north of the city, while the Austin space is on the city's east side near a booming tech startup hub rather than downtown. New York’s office, meanwhile, is located in the Chelsea neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan. EO Cleveland’s new spot has more of a home field advantage along with a bit of symbolic meaning, said Fleischer.
“As business owners, there have been so many people that helped us get established; giving back is very important to us,” Fleischer said. “In building a space for Cleveland, we’re seeing members’ faces light up when we bring them in. Helping each other out is at the core of what we do.”
EO Cleveland members raised $200,000 to supply the office with new furniture and cutting-edge AV equipment. Such dedication does not surprise Traci Miller, CEO of wholesale embroidery and screen print business Color3. Miller needed a financial and emotional boost before joining EO’s accelerator program in 2009 – a time of economic struggle that did not leave the then-emerging entrepreneur unaffected.
“My biggest fear at the time was that I didn’t know what I didn’t know – I had nobody to ask or bounce things off of,” said Miller. “I never watched anyone build a company before, so the critical part for me was knowing I wasn’t the only one experiencing these pain points.”
A downtown presence for EO Cleveland can only elevate relationships among people Miller refers to as her “tribe.”
“The heart of downtown is where we really felt we needed to be,” Miller said. “We didn’t have that synergy of walking by someone or sitting down and having coffee. Now that we have this space, these collisions can happen between members. The conversations that bloom are so impactful for us as individuals and as a group.”