The Gorilla Group continues to encourage entrepreneurship in Cleveland 15 years after its founding

Posted 3.7.2016

Gorilla Group

by Sarah M. Wells, Managing Editor

It’s the first Tuesday of the month, and Don Larson, MBA ’01, is standing next to the bar. Above him, a six-point buck’s head with a red plastic flower tucked between its antler and ear stares out indifferently at the crowd.

“You might want to plug your ears,” the guy sitting next to me says, leaning in my direction. He’s just one of 45 or so who have ventured out to the Market Avenue Wine Bar in Tremont on this rainy but not quite snowy night to laugh and drink, to socialize and strategize. 

“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!” Don erupts, “Welcome to the March 2016 edition of The Gorilla Group! Thank you for coming down here on this cold, rainy, pseudo-spring-like day.” The crowd’s side conversations slow and they redirect their attention to Don. Don is one of the founders of The Gorilla Group, which has been meeting for nearly 15 years now. 

As the meeting gets underway, Don asks for announcements from the entrepreneurs around the room. The Gorilla Group membership spans generations and represents a broad cross-section of business leaders and entrepreneurs in Northeast Ohio. One is celebrating the hire of his first W-2 employees—90 days in to his startup—and the birth of his daughter. Job openings and new clients are announced. Another member is “going for a little walk, to San Francisco,” a run and walk across the country, beginning in New York. People clap and cheer.

“This is an example, ladies and gentlemen, of why we want to own businesses,” Don says, “You create the position in life where you are independent enough, that instead of being an insane person walking from New York to San Francisco, you’re one of those eccentrics who gets to take time out of their year-long schedule, run through six pairs of shoes, and end up in California.” 

Scott Stephens, President at LiLEDs Lighting Products and one of the newest members of The Gorilla Group, is called down to stand next to Don, below the indifferent buck, to announce the reason we’re here in this lamp-lit space, sitting in lounge chairs, sipping wine and drinking beer.

“Our mission here is to provide a forum for aspiring business owners to succeed, to get the brass ring, to stop being an employee, to be an employer, to unapologetically create wealth, to sit on the beach earning 20%, to be free.” Scott continues, “We will measure ourselves by the businesses built, not interviewed with; the jobs created, not filled; and the dreams achieved, not written about. We will develop a thriving, self-perpetuating, world-class entrepreneurial community in Northeast Ohio that rivals those built in the ages of King Cotton, The Steel Belt, and Silicon Valley.” 

Northeast Ohio has seen a definite rise in entrepreneurial activity since The Gorilla Group’s inception. With organizations like JumpStart partnering with startups to help them find cash, human capital and resources, Cleveland aims to grow 10,000 new jobs and attract more than a couple billion investment dollars in the next few years (Forbes, July 23, 2015). The Gorilla Group is a major contributor to the energy around this vision for growth.

After the new member introduction, the evening moves to its next phase, the Hot Seat, where Don invites the scheduled startup to present his 30-second elevator pitch to the audience. Shawn Mastrian from Darkside Scientific, LLC delivers his pitch for LumiLor Electroluminescent Coating Technology, an innovation that can turn any surface into a lamp with just a coating of paint. Shawn shares the company vision, market strategy, and more, and the audience tosses softball and hardball questions to the team of entrepreneurs to hear more about the product, company, cost, market, and application.

It’s these kinds of innovations and entrepreneurial dreams in Cleveland that originally spawned The Gorilla Group’s creation. Back in 2001, The Gorilla Group was born at the Great Lakes Brewing Company. The group is named in honor of “The Gorilla,” the nickname of the late Professor Richard Osborne of the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, who requires everyone in his classes to go by a nickname. This inspired creativity, a critical component to the success of any entrepreneur.

The room is filled with these kinds of people, some farther along on their entrepreneurial dreams than others. They represent a membership of over 50 strong, working hard to encourage each other, build on their dreams, and further stimulate the energy and job growth in the region.

After Darkside Scientific wraps up their product demonstration and business delivery, Don encourages everyone to refill their glasses for part two of the evening, the Guest Drinker. Another longstanding tradition of the group, the Guest Drinker shares the story of his journey to business ownership—complete with successes and pitfalls—and the membership engages in offering their questions, feedback, advice, and shared experiences. Tonight’s Guest Drinker is Adam Sroka of Sroka Inc.

Adam is a second-generation entrepreneur with a growing manufacturing company. The business started as a machine shop but now manufactures their own line of material handling equipment. As Adam recounts how he moved from a career track in engineering, working for someone else, to coming home to take on the role of CEO, the audience murmurs and laughs and “oh noooos” throughout. Don directs Adam to talk about some of his recent challenges as CEO, and comments like “That happened to me, too,” and “This is how we tackled that” ripple through the crowd.

As the regular emcee, Don facilitates each meeting with energy, passion, and near brutal honesty. As he closes out the session with the Guest Drinker, Don asks the members what they heard tonight.

“It’s about the people.” … “Make the decision to be better.” … “Have a good relationship with the client, so if there’s a dispute, you resolve it eye-to-eye.”

“Don’t make decisions on emotion.” … “Integrity.” … “Failure is not an option.”

“The gentleman’s agreement and a handshake isn’t dead.”

The Gorilla Group is the buzz and heartbeat of Cleveland’s entrepreneurial community, perpetuated and flourishing 15 years after its founding and sure to thrive long into the future.


Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University cultivates creativity, innovation, and purpose-driven leadership at every level—self, others, organizations, and society. Learn more about Weatherhead’s life-changing degree programs. Weatherhead School of Management: think brighter.

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Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University cultivates creativity, innovation, and purpose-driven leadership to design a better world.