As Much About Making Community as About Making Things
The co-founders of Nashville Made, Audra Ladd and James Soto, each have had their own journeys in Nashville’s manufacturing and maker community. Soto, since 2003, has run a marketing firm focused on the industrial sector in and around Nashville. And Ladd is a ceramicist who also has run point on Nashville’s creative economy for the metro government. Nashville Made was created to help the region’s smaller makers and producers band together and give them a say in the policy decisions affecting their sector, to learn what it takes to succeed as makers in business, and to ensure the workforce needed to grow their sector tomorrow is being prepared today.
“It’s been slower to come together than one might think, given how much energy there is in the sector,” says Ladd. She points to two challenges: that smaller makers are preoccupied with their own businesses, which reduces their bandwidth for policy discussions and community- building; and that medium and larger manufacturers in the region, who should be natural allies in a Nashville Made program and lend it additional gravitas, have not seen themselves as part of the community. At least not yet.
Despite that, Nashville Made has managed to program a full slate of community- building and educational programs in very short order. Unfortunately, all of that ground to a halt on March 3 when seven tornadoes tore through the Nashville area, killing 24 people, destroying almost 800 structures, and damaging 1,400 more. Nashville Made mobilized immediately. “It’s been all hands on deck since then to help businesses cope and figure out what’s next for them,” Ladd says.
A local CDFI quickly worked with partners to put together an emergency lending program for loans of up to $50,000 at four percent interest — well below market. The loans have a term of five-and-a-half years, with no payments (or interest) due during the first six months. A total of $4 million is available to Middle Tennessee small businesses.
But businesses who are struggling to stay open and regain a market share may not benefit from taking on debt at such an uncertain time. Because of that, Nashville Made is exploring how it might develop a grant fund for its member businesses. “Cash assistance that enables businesses to get through this time is absolutely essential, especially for businesses owned by people of color that may not have as much of a runway or savings,” said Ladd.
UMA has found that so-called “made in” organizations (also called Local Brands), like Nashville Made, are essential to helping a burgeoning maker/manufacturing sector take root in cities. They help elevate the needs of the sector to policy- and decision- makers in a way that no individual small business owner can. And they help officials to understand the sector’s particular needs, especially around land use and capital access. But the community-building role they play within the sector is also key. So much of makers’ and small manufacturers’ success is often rooted in collaboration and shared business prospects. And as we are seeing in Nashville, in the wake of a traumatic event, that community can be an essential part of businesses’ survival.
Today, Audra Ladd is a champion for manufacturers big and small in Nashville. It’s a role she’s proud of, though not exactly the title she expected she’d acquire when she was a kid in rural New England.
“Manufacturing was the job you took that paid a living wage but it was sort of drudgery work,” she remembered, reflecting on her home’s economy.
Five years ago, Ladd herself became a maker. She currently has a workspace in a Nashville pottery cooperative called The Clay Lady, where she also teaches pottery classes on Fridays.
“Just a few years ago I realized how hard it was to scale a business like that,” said Ladd. “When I looked around at the other artisans, I noticed we all had a ceiling that we were hitting, and there weren’t that many resources available for us within the business support network.”
Her run-in with that deficit as a maker is what led her and a colleague to officially launch Nashville Made in December 2018, with fiscal support from the Arts and Business Council of Greater Nashville.
Nashville Made, a manufacturer support organization, runs a suite of services. Member makers and manufacturers are heavily promoted through the organization’s social media channels. They also matchmake producers with local allies in real estate, law, or financial services that could help their businesses grow, and partner with their local Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) to assess member businesses and help them plan strategically.
One of their main objectives in signing up for the Pathways to Patient Capital cohort is to learn best practices around partnering with local financial services to create new, equity-based financial products for manufacturers.
“I really understand the economic importance of having local manufacturing, both for keeping the [industrial] base present and employment-related reasons,” said Ladd. A dominant development trend in the Nashville area, according to Ladd, is the frequent redevelopment of industrial land into space for tech companies. “So Nashville Made is partly me attempting to shift the local development conversation [into] why preserving space for manufacturing companies is important.”
Though still young, the organization is broadening its support from local partners — suggesting Ladd and her team are having some success at making production businesses successful. “Our number one job is to bring people together and support them in whatever they’re working on,” said Ladd.
UMA has assembled our Pathways to Patient Capital practitioner cohort because each member has found a successful or promising approach to helping entrepreneurs of color — including makers and manufacturers — to get access to the capital and know-how they need to realize their business ideas and plans at scale. We know there is great benefit in lifting up and sharing this information among other practitioners, but also with other audiences, such as policymakers, lenders, and other funders. We compiled the brief profiles you are about to read to give these audiences a sense of both the personal and the practical: one section describes the people and organizations doing this work and the inspiration that guides them (“The Practitioner”); the other describes the innovations in capital access or readiness that each is pioneering or bringing to scale (“The Practice”). You can read the full report here.