Wittenberg University provides a liberal arts education that challenges students to become responsible global citizens and to lead professional and civic lives of creativity, service and compassion. It didn't take long for Derrick Braziel and William Thomas, Wittenberg University class of 2009 and 2008, respectively, to commit to living that mission every day.
Braziel earned a bachelor's degree in political science, and Thomas, holds a bachelor's degree in business management. Together they co-founded MORTAR Cincinnati (www.wearemortar.com) in Cincinnati, Ohio, with the mission of transitioning the city's Over-the-Rhine area into one of the most promising neighborhoods in America.
For their continuing efforts, Braziel and Thomas were named to the Forbes' fifth annual 30 Under 30 in 2015, which featured America's most important young entrepreneurs, creative leaders and brightest stars from an initial screening list of more than 15,000 of the best of the best.
The Wittenberg Alumni Association presented Braziel and Thomas with Outstanding Young Alumni Awards at its Alumni Awards Breakfast that took place from 9-11:30 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 8, in room 105 of the Joseph C. Shouvlin Center for Lifelong Learning, as part of the 2016 Homecoming Weekend festivities, Oct. 7-9.
MORTAR Cincinnati is a non-profit dedicated to providing opportunities for underrepresented entrepreneurs to start and sustain businesses. The organization offers nine-week training courses to help current residents build entrepreneurial skills and grow their own businesses.
"I don't know which direction my life would've taken if it weren't for my experiences at Wittenberg," said Braziel, who was a standout in both football and track & field at Wittenberg. He is chief relationship officer at MORTAR.
"Wittenberg means so much to me," he continued. "It set me on a path toward trying to make a difference in the world around me. The lessons I learned, the people I was connected to (including my business partner), all started at Wittenberg. I wanted to be president of the United States when I was a little kid. I'm not president yet, but then again, who knows what's next."
Braziel and Thomas have been best friends since attending Wittenberg, and the two have always wanted to try to give back. This project became their natural outlet. The two have a third partner in Allen Woods who serves as the branding gladiator and chief vision caster. Together they help MORTAR fulfill its purpose by building on successes and focusing on those who are often ignored.
Prior to his work at MORTAR Cincinnati, Braziel worked for an organization named StriveTogether, which helps communities across the country build cradle-to-career partnerships that support academic success. He also lived in Indianapolis for a while where he was part of several initiatives designed to provide opportunities for marginalized entrepreneurs.
Thomas, a native of Cincinnati who is dedicated to creating opportunities in his hometown, serves as the organization's chief financial officer and is currently community engagement manager for Cincinnati Preschool Promise and a co-founder and vice chair of BLOOM Africa.
"My Wittenberg experience led me on a path of service," Thomas said. "I had the opportunity to go on the Lesotho (Peace Corps) trip (in South Africa) and additionally spent time on a service abroad trip in Spain. As a child, I wanted to become a professional baseball player and that later transitioned into being in a position to change the world. While I'm not a professional baseball player, I do believe I have opportunities to make a significant impact in the world. I hope to stay consistent with the belief I had as child that anything is possible, and never forget how to fly."
Thomas said MORTAR's 2016 goals include expanding the neighborhoods they are working in, expanding the number of entrepreneurs they are able to support in a year, and finally starting a tech-focused program to support underserved entrepreneurs in the tech space. He defines success as more entrepreneurs having the support they need to pursue their dreams.