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Bengals Salute Inspiration Of Cincinnati Innovator Candice Matthews Brackeen


Candice Matthews Brackeen, who began inspiring change when she found out she was one of 88 black women in the country who do what she does, breaks trends much the same way she roots for the Bengals.

 With an uncommon singular focus that can still distill the big picture. While becoming a prime mover in the world of tech business, she decompresses by going to games at Paycor Stadium.

By herself.

Section 106, Row 10, Seat 13. 

She doesn't like the "sidebar," conversations because it distracts from her watching quarterback Joe Burrow's accomplices at work. She built the Cincinnati-based Lightship Foundation from the ground up with the help of an old Bengals middle linebacker, but she eyes the ball instead of the trenches.

The running back. The tight end. The wide receivers.   

"It's my break away. Some people hang out with their girlfriends.  I decided to hang out with 60,000 other people," says Matthews Brackeen.

"I got my first season ticket when we picked up Joe Burrow. I was going singles. Then right before the draft I was like, 'this is the year I'm going to start going.' Then we drafted him and immediately I got my ticket. We had a little challenge but now we've got nothing but great games." 

Her passion, not to mention her company, is on the same Super Bowl trajectory. Lightship is an idea that streaked out of a play date gone bad seven brief years ago and is now a company that has mentored, connected and helped grow about 3,000 minority-owned tech businesses while supporting and raising $225 million.

As Lightship prepares to stage the national workshop Black Tech Week in Cincinnati for the second straight year this summer, the Bengals made Matthews Brackeen the first recipient of their Inspire Change Changemaker Award. The NFL's new award recognizes individuals in each of the 32 cities who are making a difference in their communities, either individually or as part of a non-profit organization.

"This award recognizes Candice for the important work she is doing to remove barriers to success for small, minority-owned businesses in the tech industry through Lightship Foundation," said Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn when the award was announced late last season. "The recent success of Black Tech Week is one example of the positive impact she is making in the community to grow and support minority innovation professionals across the Midwest." 

When Matthews Brackeen showed up for the play date and found her son watching Call of Duty online but couldn't find the mother who was supposed to be on duty, she realized she needed to be more specific about the environment she wanted.

So she raised some money to create the small app "Hello Parent," and while it did well, that was also about the time she saw a sobering study. Less than one percent of all venture capital at that time went to black-led companies. Zero point two percent went to black women.

"Only 88 black women in the country had ever raised any venture capital and I was one of those women," Matthews Brackeen says. "It was jarring to me. But it gave me a challenge. It gave me something to fix.

"I wanted to fix that challenge for not just black women in town, but for any minority group."

She put her University of Cincinnati economics degree to work and found interested minorities. Her "meet-up" of 11 black men and women at a downtown Cincy bar caught the attention of Dhani Jones, the retired Renaissance Bengals middle backer who counts investing as one of his passions and would eventually become her co-founder.

"He was just looking. As a self-proclaimed Montessori Kid, he finds out a little bit about everything," Matthews Brackeen says. "He uses his voice. He's great at gathering people. I was grateful to have him at the beginning of the company."

Jones left after about a year-and-a-half into the project. But not before a meeting at his home, where they decided to move from a meet-up to an "accelerator," which was basically a forerunner of what became the company's boot camps that help tech companies led by minorities to grow their businesses with projects focused on branding, designing, marketing and hiring, as well as financials.

Lightship became the first such company to get a grant from the state of Ohio and when the pilot programs took off to the tune of $2.2 million of venture (one company got acquired, another got a huge investment from MasterCard and the third went into 27 countries), she was on her way.

The company is now in a half dozen Ohio cities (including her hometown of Toledo), as well as Tulsa, Okla., Milwaukee, Detroit and North Miami, Fla. It was particularly meaningful when a Tulsa group reached out as the city observed the 100th anniversary of the Black Wall Street Massacre.

"At the time it was the Wall Street of the center of the country and it was businesses owned by black people and they lost all that 100 years ago," Matthews Brackeen says. "There's a fantastic foundation there that reached out to us and asked if we could apply to do work there.

"We won that project. We fell in love with the city and the people and their ability to persevere through something pretty challenging. Black Wall Street was actually burned down twice. Now we're part of that work bringing back black-owned businesses to town, but specifically for us, tech businesses."

She saved her biggest recruit for her adopted hometown when Lightship won the rights to Black Tech Week. The annual event in Miami drew hundreds in what had become a vital networking component for the emerging ventures, but it needed a new venue to continue.

"This program can't be over," she thought. "There are so many people around the country that need it. It's like a family reunion."

The event debuted in Cincinnati last year in a big way when tennis icon Serena Williams gave the keynote address. It's hard to get bigger than Serena, but Matthews Brackeen is trying. They're expecting close to 1,200 for the July 18-20 event that is centered on Music Hall and Washington Park with access to such sites as the Streetcar and Findlay Market.

"She had been working on bringing that here for two years," says Mike Venerable, the Cincy Tech CEO who has been an advisor and supporter. "She texted me she had it before it was announced and the first thing I said is, 'I can't wait to see it in five years if you're running it because I know it will be way bigger.' It's already bigger. This year it's going to be over the top. She takes anything she gets a hold of and makes it bigger.

"It's a big problem to solve. To get more investment dollars in the hands of diverse people. It's a game-changer," Venerable says. "She's a force of nature. She's got big vision. She's one of the few people that can match vision and reality and action and tie those things together."

It turns out she's a lot like her favorite Bengal, tight end Hayden Hurst.

"His head is always in the game all the time," she says. "Next up is Eli Apple. He gets a lot of junk from people, but he keeps pushing through it."

At the moment the tentative vision is for Lightship to stay in the Cincinnati innovation district near UC, but move to a roomier building in the fall. The company, it seems from Section 106, Row 10, Seat 13, is growing with the Burrow Bengals.

Matthews Brackeen may go to the games alone, but she's never by herself.

"I love going and meeting new people," she says.

Joyce has the tickets next to her and each game there may be a different family member sitting in the seat next to her. In front of her sits a family from Boston that travels to each home game. Behind her are some friendly rowdies. It seemed like they were all weeping when linebacker Germaine Pratt picked the ball off at the Bengals 2 to preserve that Wild Card win early last year.

Seat 13?

"There is no bad luck with this team," says Matthews Brackeen, who prefers inspiration over superstition.

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