Ch-Ace-ing the Dream
On his Facebook page, Ace Epps describes himself as a Skillionaire: Facilitator, Speaker, Educator, Business Coach, Ordained Minister, Reiki Master, Writer, Artist, Poet, Emcee, DJ, Producer, and Podcaster. With 23 years in the nonprofit sector, his experience includes financial literacy, program development, workforce development, community engagement, outreach, and recruitment.
But anyone who has met Ace knows he is much more than his resume. He is an icon, a motivator, and an influencer. His relentless energy and ideas have resulted in program after program, each building and expanding upon the last to create opportunities to educate and better the Akron community.
After spending nearly four years at Bounce Innovation Hub, Ace is now Community Manager for JPMorgan Chase. His job is to build a bridge between Akron’s minority communities and banking resources through financial literacy workshops. “After working in the nonprofit sector for many years, especially with the latter portion in entrepreneurship and workforce development, I realized that all of the discussions were focused on access to capital. All of the Bounce programs touch on that. People were always asking, ‘How do I get funding; how do I improve my credit; how do I become more financially fit?’ So for me, my natural evolution in terms of being able to provide information to our community was to focus more on financial literacy, financial wellness, and generational wealth,” he says.
But that’s the tip of the iceberg of Ace’s plans.
Voice of the City
One of Ace’s signature sayings is, “Nine to five is what you do. Five to ten is who you are.” It is something he imparts in all of his workshops. It serves as a way of illustrating how one’s work life may not encompass one’s life purpose. In many ways, Ace has been incorporating this in his life, carving out time to tend to his creative energies while simultaneously serving his community. Music, poetry, and creativity are threads sewn into the fibers of his soul. He’s also one to quickly recognize an opportunity and make it his own.
While working at the Akron Urban League, Ace took over its Sunday morning radio show called Center Talks, which was broadcast through WAKR. He implemented some changes and selected Kat McDaniel to assist him.
After he departed the Akron Urban League, Ace changed the program’s name to Akron Community Voice and modeled the platform after one in Philadelphia, PA, allowing people to discuss their passions and projects impacting the city. When the pandemic cut off access to the radio station, Ace switched to podcasting.
Ace and Kat continue to produce the weekly podcast every Sunday. They have recently started filming the sessions, which are posted on Facebook.
Even when trying to find work-life balance, Ace just spontaneously fosters new ideas. “I have a date night every Friday with my wife, but I never had a day just to myself. So I created My Day, which is every Thursday evening. I pick up a bottle of wine and buy a record from Square Records in Highland Square. I go home, close the door to my man cave, pour a glass of wine, and listen to the record. A few times, I didn’t make it home on a Thursday night and had My Day at the office. One time, a friend walked in on me and said, “This is a show.” And that’s how the ReWine podcast got started in 2018. It’s evolved over time to be about good conversations. We just have fun.”
From this idea, Ace connected with Futuro Media Group, which helps minorities start podcasting. “I wanted to help 20 people learn how to become subject matter experts using podcasting. For two years we did that and developed a collective of podcasters who are now part of the Be You Podcasting Company.” The company allows these Black storytellers to share topics that local media outlets tend to overlook.
On top of his day job, podcasts, and other projects, Ace has been writing a book. You Are Who You Think You Are: the Ultimate Guide to Selling Yourself is expected to be released in May or June.
We are the ones we serve.
Ace is always full of ideas, and often, in unexpected moments, new programs arise. “Back in November, I was on a plane returning from a conference. And I had a thought—there’s not enough spotlight on Black leaders in Akron. What can I do? I saw this as a problem. Entrepreneurship is identifying a problem and creating a solution. I am that to the core.
“So I came up with a solution to identify 10 Black males and one female. I wanted the majority to be men because when I worked for BMe Community, they focused on Black males doing phenomenal things but who weren’t getting exposure. So I figured I’d use that same recipe but based on nothing more than me thinking someone was the bomb. When I scroll through my Facebook and Linkedin, I come across people all the time who are awesome or doing great things. And I realized I could champion them. By the time I got off the plane, I had a complete plan. I’m going to pick 11 people, invite them to the seminar space, take a picture, do a video, and talk about the people who actually serve the people who look like us.”
And by “us,” Ace points out, he doesn’t only mean Black people. “I mean cool people. Because to me, cool is a color unto itself. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, green, female, transgender, or whatever. You can identify a cool person the moment you meet them.”
There was no voting system or formal application. The only demonstrable criterion was that those chosen had to be impacting the community. He named his initiative We are the Ones We Serve.
Over the years, Ace has created many programs for various groups and organizations. He knows his way around the city, the major players, and how to put ideas in motion. But with We are the Ones We Serve, Ace wanted the initiative to stand on its own. “It was very important for me to create something that was my own. I didn’t reach out or take any funding from anyone. The whole point was for us (i.e., Akron Community Voice) to point out other people doing fantastic stuff from the Black perspective.”
The final piece was for those selected to respond to his invite. “I just told them to come down to Summit Artspace and dress up. I didn’t tell them why. And they all came. That’s when I told them they were all part of a collective, a network. My job for the next month will be to put a spotlight on you. Us doing it for us. Us doing it for Akron.” For 30 days, Ace promoted each selected person on Facebook with their photo, the initiative’s logo, and why he thought they were cool.
After the launch, Ace still wanted to do more. “I felt like a proud dad. I made a space for these people to come together and naturally network and collaborate. But then I thought, what’s next? What do I do now?”
The next step was a private pinning ceremony held in late February to formalize those chosen to participate in this network. Another will be held in December, adding more members. The goal is to keep growing the group, all bound together by one pin. “We will have a collective of people already doing great things and who are great at what they do. Everyone will already know what everyone does and be able to refer one another when needs arise in the community. And the pin is a symbol for members to recognize fellow members.”
The second part will be quarterly meetings based on an unconference format, where a group member is selected randomly to present. “It’s an opportunity for people to stay connected and collaborate.”
Ace may have left the music business, but his energy remains pure artist. Like a musician with a catalog of unpublished work, Ace acts on his inspiration but bides his time, waiting for the right opportunity to release it.
“You can think about something your whole life and not be ready for it when it comes. That’s not me. I don’t daydream. I don’t know how to daydream. I live the dream. If I get an idea or even a whiff of an idea, I blink, and the whole program is written. I don’t know how to sit on it. I don’t wait to execute my ideas. I just create.”
Ace’s mind continually focuses on creating spaces, programs, opportunities, tools, and resources for people to live better lives. In doing so, he hopes to shape Akron into a better place where people want to work, live, and play.
“My personal vision statement is: ‘I’m a born creator.’ When I’m building more prosperous communities, I do it through an artistic lens. So how do I do it? I create. I didn’t say I sell it or I get someone to buy into it. I make it and put it out there. And then I move on. Because I respect the muse. I know someone will call me down the road and ask what I have that relates to XYZ. That’s when I pull out my ideas. This is exactly what happened at Bounce. I didn’t have to make the program. I had already made it years before.”
Another part of being prepared is Ace’s personal perspective, which runs through everything he does. “I think that every person is an owner of their own business. I am a business unto myself. I call mine Ace International. I am the star player, and I operate from that point of view.
“I also do a self assessment every three years. I want to make sure I’m in tune with not only the mission of the organization I work for but also with what I want professionally and personally. Like a football player when his contract is up for renewal. The agent, player, and manager come together and think about it. Is it conducive? Are we still moving in the same way? Have you learned something? Should you move on. So I do that with myself.”
Core of Inspiration
Every great leader has to start somewhere. For Ace, that happened on a return trip to Akron.
“I had moved from New York to Atlanta. While things were going well in the music business, I didn’t want to be the old rap guy. I was only 28 at the time. All I’d ever done up to that point was music. I had an opportunity to sign with a record company, but it wasn’t what I envisioned for me as an artist. So, in the middle of the night, I ran away. I sold a Genesis Playstation 1 at a pawn shop and got a one-way bus ticket back to Ohio. It’s a 12-hour trip. I had no money for food.
“On that trip, I sat next to a lady touring the country by Greyhound as part of her bucket list. And this lady pretty much changed my life. She fed me and grounded me. She introduced me to the idea of transferable skills—taking what you have now and applying it in other areas. So this lady not only fed me food, she fed me knowledge I needed at the time.
“To this day, I can’t tell you this lady’s name. But that experience made me start to look at life a little differently. It took a couple of years for me to digest it, but that’s when I made my first leap into the nonprofit sector.”
Ace’s music, style, and persona evolved through a variety of influences in his life. “There’s this idea I call the Intergalactic Mentor. These are people you don’t actually know, but you reach for them, and you take stuff from them. They’re like your mentor. For me, all of my big influences came from entertainers. People I thought were the bomb. I wanted to be Andy Warhol visually. I got my name from Ace Frehley from Kiss. I thought Jim Morrison was one of the dopest artists. With Run DMC, I saw me for the first time.”
There were also people in Ace’s real life that affected and shaped him. “I have a mentor named Mwatabu Okantah, Associate Professor and Interim Chair in the Department of Africana Studies at Kent State University. He’s a poet and had dreadlocks down his back when I first met him. Instantly, I wanted to be him. So I stopped cutting my hair. I wrote my first poem after seeing this guy in 1990. He wrote poetry for my wedding. Years later, after I became an ordained minister, I performed the ceremony at his daughter’s wedding.”
And there’s Uncle Larry. “He’s not my real uncle, but he was really close with my family. He taught me practical man stuff. To me, he embodies all of the things that make a man a good man. He drove me to my first day of college because we didn’t have a car. I feel like I don’t ever want to disappoint this cat. And every time he says to me, ‘Ace I’m proud of you,’ I crack up.”
Perhaps in tribute to the small gestures he’s received, from the woman on the bus and Uncle Larry to his Intergalactic mentors, Ace is that small thing for many others, but in a very large way. He has a presence that makes people think anything is possible.
“My job is to make people feel like they’re suppose to be there. I don’t mean that in a literal job description way. I mean that’s just the way I feel. I need you to feel that you’re suppose to be there. I’m that way with everybody.”
This is also true when it comes to the local Akron Community. “Black people not only want to feel comfortable, but they also want to feel that the space was created for them with them in mind. If you go to a spot and you’re not feeling it, it’s because you don’t feel you in it.”
Ace’s beliefs and convictions run deep, yet his boisterous personality belies his humble endeavors. “My Uncle Larry taught me to try to help two people a day outside of your job. I still hold that as my motto. Sometimes if I can’t get it in at work, I look for the guy standing on the corner to give him a couple bucks. It’s been a thing for me. I’m religious about it.”
If there’s one piece of advice Ace has for everyone, it’s this. “In my poems, I focus on life, love, and the struggle of being. Identify what brings you enjoyment and fulfillment. Identify it and run to it.”
Ace’s Four to Look at For
People you can bet are making moves and doing great things.