Photography by RVP Photography.
When speaking with Bertie Ray III about Switch, the modern lighting store and design studio he owns with Drew Dearwester in Cincinnati, Ohio, it quickly becomes clear that in addition to gorgeous fixtures and years of expertise, community has played a central role in the success and evolution of the business. Since opening in 2008, Switch has offered customers the opportunity to experience their unique aesthetic (you can enjoy a virtual tour of their showroom here), contributed to some impressive local projects, and sought out ways to enhance and support the city’s overall entrepreneurial spirit. Recently, we sat down with Ray to learn more about his experience as a business owner, the best advice he’s received, what the future holds for Switch, and more.
TSG: Can you please tell us a little about Switch?
BR: Switch was founded in 2008, right at the beginning of “the great recession,” in Over-the-Rhine, a part of town that was just beginning to be revitalized. We were one of the first small businesses to open there, which garnered us a significant amount of regional attention. We were urban entrepreneurs who wanted to do something unique and different and bring something interesting and exciting to Cincinnati.
The day we opened, the stock market crashed. But the following Monday, we were presented with our first major opportunity: to do the lighting design for the historic Mercantile Library. That put us on the map, and soon customers began coming from the suburbs and other cities within a 90-minute radius to experience our lighting showroom and see pieces from Italy, Denmark, Germany, and London, as well as from exciting American makers. The aesthetic was so fresh and new, and we became recognized as an industry leader and a destination for modern lighting.
About five years ago, due to our success in Over-the-Rhine, we were able to acquire a significant property in the downtown West Fourth Street Historic District. We went from a 900-square-foot showroom to an 11,700-square-foot building, which gave us an opportunity to bring more lighting opportunities to the region and to expand into furniture—a decision that was driven by our customers, who often asked for advice and suggestions as we were working with them on lighting.
We pride ourselves on personal relationships and having intentional relationships with customers. About 80 percent of our clients are return clients; they tell their children, neighbors, friends, and coworkers about the service we provide and the quality of our merchandise. Often, our residential clients turn into commercial clients. We also work very closely with the trade—architects, interior designers, and developers.
TSG: Tell us about yourself, and why you started your own business.
BR: When my wife and I came to Cincinnati, I was a husband-in-tow. In the beginning, I was flying back to New York City to work, and finally I had to make a decision. I’d spent years working with other people, helping them open their own businesses, and I thought, you have an opportunity to do something fresh and unique. Given the opportunity to do something out-of-the-box, what’s your next step?
I’d worked in government, but my mother and aunt had great design sense, and my father was a master contractor and electrician in the D.C. area, and as a kid my brothers and I would go to work with him. When I met Drew, he was a design consultant; he did the lighting design work on our house. One day I said, “You’re outstanding at what you do. Let me know if you want to do something on your own.” That led to us going into business together. Drew and I are both passionate about design, and lighting design in particular, and we talked at length about what we could do as a business venture. Sometimes you admire people’s gifts, and that is precisely how Switch came about. It was a natural progression to enter into this venture.
In terms of my personal interests, I have traveled extensively—to Kenya, Rwanda, Zaire, Russia, Honduras, Guatemala, The Philippines, and a good amount of Europe. I’m also a recitalist specializing in spirituals, art songs, and oratorios. I enjoy collecting African American art, reading (the latest book I read is Dear White Friend by Mel Gravely), and debating current events over bourbon. My guilty pleasures include the Potomac Housewives, Schitt’s Creek, and a massive bag of Himalayan sea salt and black pepper chips.
TSG: What do you love most about owning your own business?
BR: The freedom to plot my own destiny. Also, I like seeing my vision come to life. That’s very important to me.
I also really enjoy being a beacon in the community. So, as we move forward and make a positive impact in the community, I hope it inspires more people to start their own businesses.
TSG: What has surprised you the most about being a small business owner?
BR: I was really shocked at the number of supporters that we had when we opened. People across the board, from all over Cincinnati, came to support a small business that opened in an emerging community during the recession. The community was equally inspired and wanted to share in our success. That support has continued, both through local development organizations as well as partners in the design community. So, I feel like Switch really belongs to the community, and as a result, we host events and activities for the community. We utilize our building in creative ways—by hosting art showings, parties—so it’s not just an untouchable, inaccessible high-end lighting and furniture store. It’s a living part of the community.
TSG: Why do you love being a small business owner in your area?
BR: I particularly enjoy doing business in Cincinnati because the opportunity is available to everyone. Unlike some areas on the coast where the cost and barriers to entry are staggering, Cincinnati and other midwestern cities are much more accessible. Also, I appreciate the support we’ve received, and the ease of being able to get started.
Cincinnatians are also well-traveled people. They’re adventuresome, so they really took to our aesthetic. Because they travel so often and broadly, many of them have experienced our kind of lighting in other countries, which makes it more accessible to them. Younger people moving into their first apartment might forego going to Ikea or one of the knockoff brands and save up and invest in a modern table lamp that they can hold onto forever. It’s exciting that people in this region are open to beautiful things, new things, things that are exquisitely designed and long-lasting.
TSG: What are you most proud of as a business owner?
BR: I’m proud that we’re still standing. I’m also proud of having inspired other African American entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. Over the 13 years we’ve been around, there has been major growth in the number of African American small business retailers in Over-the-Rhine and downtown, and I like to think some were inspired by us, as well as by collectives like MORTAR, an incubator for African American small businesses that opened down the street from our first location.
TSG: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
BR: This advice came from a gentleman named Ed Rigaud, an African American entrepreneur in Cincinnati who has been a mentor and friend to me: Spend more time looking forward than backward. Because in doing so, you prepare yourself for the next opportunity. We try to do that here at Switch by continuously looking for more opportunity, new opportunity, not being afraid of opportunity, and continuously looking ahead. It’s easy to get caught up in all the things you’ve done incorrectly, but that spot of wallowing doesn’t move you forward.
TSG: What challenges have you faced, and how have you overcome them?
BR: Five years ago, when we bought our building in downtown Cincinnati, business was booming. Then we encountered the trade war with China, and then the pandemic, so we’re working through the challenges of being a retailer that was doubly impacted by those events.
How are we dealing with it? We’ve buckled down and begun to broaden our offerings to include consulting services, so we are working directly with architects and others to do more lighting design to supplement our retail business. We’re also revisiting our website, which has primarily been a marketing site since we created it in 2008, to include a curated selection of products for ecommerce.
TSG: Can you describe what the past year and a half has been like?
BR: The past year has been exhilarating to say the least. It has taken all of my personal energy to survive. And that’s okay. That’s what entrepreneurism is all about: when the going gets tough, the tough get going. For me, it has been the most exciting time to be an entrepreneur. Every barrier to allowing your business to grow and be successful that you can imagine is out of your control right now. But how can you maximize the things that are in your control? That’s the thing I go to sleep thinking about, that wakes me up at 3 a.m., and that energizes me at 6:30 a.m. to move forward.
During the pandemic we received one of the greatest opportunities of our business career. We were hired by a local architecture firm to design the lighting for the PNC Tower, the third-largest building in Cincinnati (at one point it was the fourth largest in country), which is being converted from a commercial office tower to a residential tower. They came to us right as the city was shutting down last March, and the project should come to fruition next year. So, there are opportunities. When you keep your energy and heart open to opportunity, it will come.
TSG: What’s next?
BR: We would like to continue to grow. We’d like to stabilize our core business in Cincinnati post-pandemic, and then we would like to look at opportunities in other cities that would appreciate our aesthetic. We believe our business model is a winning business model, and given our customer base in other cities, we believe Switch would perform well as a brand and want to explore that.
TSG: August is Black Business Month. Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in increasing their support for Black-owned businesses?
BR: Black-owned businesses tend to be located in communities that are marginalized, and people are hesitant to go there. Today, Over-the-Rhine has almost zero vacancies, but when we opened there in 2008, we were in a predominantly African American community that was in the process of being revitalized. When we moved to Historic West Fourth five years ago, there was only one other small business, and now there are 11. I understand how people perceive going to these places, but once we get beyond the fear of where we think we’re going to do business, we are pretty pleased when we get there.
TSG: Can you tell us about some of the Black-owned businesses in your community that readers should know about?
BR: There are a number of strong, wonderful businesses. I wish there were more, and there are more coming online. I think The Scout Guide Cincinnati has done a wonderful job of recruiting and featuring some of these businesses, including Sweet Petit Desserts. Before Taren Kinebrew opened Sweet Petit, she came to Switch. Whenever we work with a new business that’s just opening, we go above and beyond to create wonderful spaces regardless of the budget, and in Taren’s space, we used the most beautiful Italian lighting, which increased curb appeal. We also recently did the lighting for Junebug Jewelry in Over-the-Rhine, adding signature pieces that elevate the overall experience. In these cases, rather than focus on profits, our goal is to invest in other businesses so that our community looks beautiful, and so they can attract customers and thrive.