CINCINNATI – Ronald Hummons didn’t become an entrepreneur to build a better mousetrap.
He became an entrepreneur to build a better life.
“I have to make it,” said Hummons, 40. “I don’t have anything to fall back on.”
In some ways, Hummons’ story isn’t all that different from other small business owners who start companies because they need to make a living.
But Hummons became an entrepreneur after getting out of prison. He figured nobody would hire a guy who had spent six and a half years behind bars and that creating his own job was his best shot at turning around his life.
He started by designing athletic shoes that featured maps of Cincinnati neighborhoods. He eventually got them produced overseas and made deals to sell his C-town shoes in several local stores. He expanded the line to include hoodies, too.
In the years since, he’s been teaching entrepreneurship to inmates at Warren Correctional Institute in Lebanon. He made a documentary film called “think!” to warn young people about snap decisions that can land them in prison. And he started a new business selling Jetti Juice, an energy drink he developed that’s also designed to be an aphrodisiac.
“He is very, very driven,” said Robert Mendelsohn, a Blue Ash lawyer and one of Hummons’ early business advisors. “He’s looking to make himself successful and achieve.”
As a former criminal lawyer, Mendelsohn has seen how tough that can be for people after they get out of prison.
“Yeah, he went to prison. He did this. He did that,” Mendelsohn said. “But he’s now out, striving to be great.”
A Difficult Journey
That’s not to say the journey has been easy. Hummons had a start in life that the typical entrepreneur would find tough to imagine.
He grew up in Over-the-Rhine. He and his crack-addicted father slept in abandoned houses when he was a boy. His dad put a pistol in his hand at age 12 so Hummons could help him rob people for drug money.
Hummons went to prison in his late teens for what he describes as “stupid stuff” that he now regrets.
When he got out in 2000, Hummons was 27. He had his dream to start the shoe line but little hope.
Hummons took a bottle of pills to try to kill himself. He survived, divorced his wife and started living on the streets. He was sleeping on a park bench when the manager of the Lord’s Gym found him.
Hummons started working out and attending Bible study at the Over-the-Rhine gym, which caters to men’s spiritual and physical development. Soon he was living at another Over-the-Rhine ministry affiliated with the gym.
Employees of FOCAS, the Foundation of Compassionate American Samaritans that operates the ministries, helped Hummons find investors to make samples of his shoes. He eventually found another investor to help him start Grapevine Ltd. LLC and launch the C-town shoe brand in 2006.
The business did well, bringing in as much as $225,000 annually in revenue in the years that Hummons released a new design.
But his efforts to grow C-town were thwarted, too. He lost nearly $300,000 overnight when the export agents he hired sent his money to an overseas manufacturer without a letter of credit.
Hummons got 6,500 pairs of shoes that were all defective with little recourse.
“It was an expensive lesson,” he said. “Now I do my own quality control. I do letters of credit now. The businessman I am now is definitely not the businessman I was six years ago.”
Now Hummons is focusing Grapevine on his Hometown Hoodies, which feature a map design that’s similar to the shoes but are less complicated and expensive to produce. He’s had samples made in Peru and is working to perfect them.
Next Step: Winning Over Investors
He has a C-Town Apparel Facebook page and plans to sell the hoodies online.
He’s also seeking investors for his Jetti Juice Brands so he can produce mass quantities of the drink. A Louisville company made about 1,500 cans for him, but that's just a start. Hummons has a distribution deal with GNC, he said, and needs $150,000 to produce enough of the drink to sell at the stores.
“It’s an interesting business concept. And done right, I think it could be profitable,” said Ron Meyers, who serves as chief financial officer for Jetti Juice Brands and teaches entrepreneurship courses at the University of Cincinnati.
Chris Berre, a partner in the Berre | Schirmang | Schmid law firm in East Hyde Park, has been working with Hummons for the past six months to help get a trademark for Jetti Juice.
“It’s an important step,” Berre said. “He wants to make sure that he’s protected and that he’s not stepping on anyone else’s toes. It’s good for approaching investors.”
Berre and Hummons both attend Crossroads Community Church in Oakley and met through the church’s Unpolished program for entrepreneurs.
Berre calls Hummons “the consummate entrepreneur.”
“He’s not some trust fund kid,” Berre said. “His background has given him that ‘go for it’ attitude, that chip on his shoulder that he’s going to find a way to make it happen.”
Meyers knows Hummons’ personal history could
give investors pause initially.
“Once they get to know him, they can see that he’s trustworthy, he’s passionate,” he said. “Investors are looking to invest in the team more so than the product. They’re looking for that spark in people. I think Ron is investable.”
As Hummons works to convince investors to put money into Jetti Juice, he earns a living helping other small business owners, too.
He’s written several business plans for Nick Burnett, for example, said Burnett, the owner of Shoe Avenue Outlet on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine.
“He’s helped me really tell the story correctly about each business,” Burnett said. “He has experienced a lot of wins and a lot of losses in his own life and business. He brings experience.”
For his part, Hummons wants to translate that experience into building his Jetti Juice Brands and Hometown Hoodies. He’s still teaching entrepreneurship to inmates. And soon he plans to start production on another film called “When I Was A Child.” He wants to talk to crack addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes about the dreams they had as children and what changed in their lives to dash those dreams.
It’s all part of that drive to succeed, to build the life he wants for himself and his 10-year-old son.
He knows his past impacts the way people see him. But Hummons said he wants to use it as a “launch pad,” not a crutch.
“It’s kind of a gift and a curse,” Hummons said of his past. “It makes me want to just go even harder when it comes to this entrepreneur stuff. It’s part of my story. And I definitely don’t shy away from my story.”
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may .