Entrepreneurship inspired Sunny Martin, lifting him out of poverty. Now he's on a mission to help others do the same through founding businesses.

Sunny Martin quit his first job as a TV news reporter because of all the negative stories he was assigned to cover in black neighborhoods. He went on to build a publishing empire that highlighted African-American success stories.

But on a summer afternoon in 2017, he found himself making bad assumptions about a young black man who approached him outside his daughter’s house in Columbus’ Milo-Grogan neighborhood.

“I said, ‘I’m going to give you about three seconds to get off my stairs,’ ” Martin recalls. “He stepped back, and he said, ‘Sir, I’m sorry. I just wanted to hand you a flier. I’m trying to get young men to stop the violence in the community so they won’t make the same mistakes I made.”

Martin thought of his own past, how his dreams of playing football for Ohio State University were dashed because he had a juvenile record for driving without a license. He remembered being told by a dean that he probably would end up doing manual labor “like your forefathers” if he quit college to accept a job offer. He remembered being told by a business owner that clients just wouldn’t want him to hire a black man.

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“My heart sank,” Martin says. “I came from those same streets. He’s trying to be part of the solution, not the problem, and I racially profiled him as a thug.”

Martin invited the young man onto the porch, and the young man told him how he dropped out of school in 10th grade after his mother went to jail and he became homeless. He ended up selling drugs, getting arrested and serving four years in prison. He was working for an anti-violence group as he put together his own organization to help others who’ve been incarcerated.

His story gave Martin, a serial entrepreneur, an idea.

Martin, who 10 years ago sold his Who’s Who Publishing Co. to Detroit-based Real Media Inc., is back in business and helping others follow his path. In January, he opened the Urban Entrepreneur Center about a mile from his old neighborhood with the goal of training and mentoring aspiring business owners who’ve faced the same kind of disadvantages he overcame.

He’s teaching classes, including a four-week introductory course in February that touched on sales, marketing and the nature of business and entrepreneurship. The center’s 8,200-square-foot home on Taylor Avenue offers offices and coworking space for rent.

While black business ownership is on the rise—up more than 35 percent in the years after the Great Recession of 2008-09—black-owned businesses in the United States tend to be smaller and earn less revenue than others.

Martin sees entrepreneurship as a way out of poverty because it’s what lifted him. He delivered newspapers as a teen and took the enterprise so seriously that he bought a car to expand his route and ended up getting caught driving at age 15.

“We were poor, you know, lights out every other month, gas turned off,” Martin says. “It was a struggle. It was all hands on deck. We had to support the family.”

As the disco era dawned in the mid-1970s, Martin began Sunny’s Mobile Music, a business that leased sound equipment and provided DJs to nightclubs throughout Central Ohio. After relocating to Atlanta in the 1980s, he started Who’s Who, which published books showcasing black (and later Latino and LGBTQ) business people, community leaders and others.

Jordan Miller III, a business development representative for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and a board member at the Urban Entrepreneur Center, says Martin’s knowledge and passion for entrepreneurship make him the ideal person to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs.

It’s an important sector of the economy for Central Ohio to nurture, he says.

“We have large employers. Just think if one of those large corporations was to leave,” Miller says. “Think about the effect that would have. That’s why entrepreneurship 
is so important.”

Bob Vitale is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.