Benito Lubazibwa learned the essentials of entrepreneurship from the childhood garden plot his parents gave him in his native Tanzania. Tending and selling tomatoes, pulling weeds, and eliminating pests gave him the basics of business: discipline, timing and patience. He has since built his career around democratizing access to business support for under-resourced entrepreneurs.
Lubazibwa’s company, Remix Ideas, and its business academy previously held at Philander Smith College, provided access to training, mentorships and micro-grants. Sensing the growing need to support business-owners through the challenges of the pandemic, Lubazibwa recently established the nonprofit Advancing Black Entrepreneurship. The Rock It! Lab is the latest iteration of this work — a collaboration between his nonprofit and the Central Arkansas Library System, born out of a strategy session in early 2019 and envisioned as “a launch pad for people’s ideas and dreams.” Located at the downtown Cox Building, the Rock It! Lab includes a studio space for artists, a retail floor featuring products from Arkansas’s under-resourced entrepreneurs, a restaurant area for food vendors to test their products, as well as a business academy and “The Village,” a co-working space. We talked with Lubazibwa and Rock It! Lab Coordinator Leah Patterson ahead of Thursday’s ribbon cutting ceremony at Central Arkansas Library System’s Library Square.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lubazibwa: We’ve been working since 2017 to democratize entrepreneurship in Arkansas. We focus on the three C’s: knowledge capital, which includes the business academy and provides technical assistance and one-on-one consultations, financial capital [in the form of] grants and microloans. Another thing is social capital: we connect businesses with different networks. Access to markets, access to knowledge, and access to capital — that’s where we really focus.
The library has done a lot to democratize knowledge and information. I thought it would be excellent if the library was able to democratize entrepreneurship, especially for startups. So this place, the Rock It! Lab, is really an incubator program. You know, in Africa we say, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Really, in the reality of the entrepreneur ecosystem, it takes a village to raise a start-up.
What collaborative spaces are available at the lab?
Patterson: We have three main areas here that are the spaces we provide. The 501 Makers Space is particularly for our entrepreneurs that are artists or creative entrepreneurs. We’re really focusing right now on textiles. We have six sewing machines, two embroidery machines, an artists’ space, a screen-printing machine.
All throughout the space, we want to motivate and inspire. We’re hoping these artist-entrepreneurs learn how to run their businesses in addition to giving them the skills [for their craft]. This is really about how to take your creative endeavor and grow it into a business.
Lubazibwa: We don’t want “starving artists.” We want thriving artists. You can come create here and go to the marketplace and be able to sell upstairs [at the River Shop].
Patterson: Many businesses don’t have mentors and people to even understand what it is to run a business, and in that isolation you lose hope; you lose motivation. That’s a really big, important part of what we’re trying to create here: a space of hope and motivation, and also the tools. The “yes you can do it, and here’s how.”
Our River Shop is our retail space for entrepreneurs who have retail products, and we have about 20 entrepreneurs represented here. What’s really unique about this space is that it’s across the board in terms of the types of products we have right now, and it will continue to change because this is an incubator space as well. We will be helping them every step of the way to price it, to learn how to be competitive, how to stage products for the best presentation, etc., and it will be a continuous [learning] process with them. We imagine that they’ll be with us until they’re able to go into other retail spaces — larger retail spaces— and are able to get those contracts with other distributors.
Lubazibwa: Here it’s like a test drive. This is a place where you have an idea, but you have to have a proof of concept — is your idea working? This is an environment where it [testing a product] doesn’t cost too much because you can put this product here for free. You can get mentors and knowledge to help you in terms of pricing and packaging and marketing your product for free. So it makes it much easier. The most important thing is also about the numbers, the financial part, understanding your numbers, the financial statements, the cash flow — we put that foundation for the business so they can succeed. The reason why we call it the Rock It! Lab — you know how you launch a rocket? Astronauts have to really work hard: They have to prepare and be trained, but also, they have a team like NASA. They have a team of engineers preparing the launch. If you don’t prepare well, you’ll crash. We really have to make sure before they launch their business they have tools, skills, and knowledge — they have done their research and they know their craft, industry, and customers.
This incubator program is a catalyst tool for the city and the state in terms of economic development. This is the place where we produce entrepreneurs — companies — and if we produce 50 or 100 companies, guess what — they create jobs. They’re creating jobs, income, they have to pay tax and that’s really how we build a more sustainable and just economic ecosystem.
Are there other cities you’ve seen implement similar programs successfully, or are there any organizations that have inspired you?
Lubazibwa: I’ve seen some people have co-working spaces, incubator spaces — this is not a new concept. However, the partnership between us and the library, and the way we want to implement this [program] for the state of Arkansas, this is a unique space. We have our partners: from Communities Unlimited, Forge, Southern Bancorp, and People’s Trust — all those CDFIs — they work with us. So when you come here, you have access to the market, access to capital and access to knowledge. You cannot beat that.
You’ve spoken about access to social capital and networking. Many people who own businesses inherited that knowledge and access and didn’t necessarily go through the experience of having to start from just an idea.
Lubazibwa: That’s what we see a lot. Most of the under-resourced entrepreneurs — especially in the Black community — we find they’re the first generation who are starting businesses. So they don’t have parents who have sat down with them and said, “This is how you run the business — this is how you read a financial statement.” They don’t have that knowledge.
Over the past few years I’ve worked closely with assisting Black entrepreneurs develop their enterprises at all stages of business development. And I have consistently watched these entrepreneurs face the same barrier — the same redline — which is lack of access to capital due to low credit score and lack of collateral. Without capital, businesses cannot grow, cannot scale, cannot survive. So, this is a major issue.
So, I started to imagine a lending system that made a determination relying more on the individual’s business model rather than credit score and collateral. I decided to share this concept and now I am pleased to be in partnership with Forge to implement the Imani Fund, a pilot program aimed at minimizing the systemic barriers that have too often denied under-resourced entrepreneurs when seeking capital. One of the unique features of the Imani Fund is that the individual’s potential to execute a viable business model in the future outweighs their past relationship with debt. Loan capital will be provided by Forge, a Community Development Financial Institution, with loan amounts between $5,000 to $25,000. I should also add that Imani in Swahili means “faith,” hence the name Imani Fund.
How do people get started?
Patterson: Right now, we will primarily be intaking people through the website. That’s a really important point: This will not be a space where you just come maybe once or twice and not really become connected. When people become part of the Rock It! Lab we’ll be figuring out where they are in their business process, and then we’ll be creating goals with them to take them through the process.
From your previous work with ReMix Ideas and Advancing Black Entrepreneurship, do you have any success stories you’d like to share?
Lubazibwa: We have many success stories. One of ABE’s most recent success stories was Shop Black @ Wright Ave, a street festival held on June 19 along the Wright Avenue commercial corridor that also served as a Black-business economic stimulus. Shop Black @ Wright Ave, organized by ABE and ReMix Ideas in partnership with the Wright Avenue Historic Neighborhood Association, incentivized locals to spend their dollars among the 19 participating Black vendors/shop owners by providing event day shoppers with custom Black Ten Dollar bills. The Black Ten Dollar bill provided shoppers with a $10 match [matching funds provided by ABE and ReMix Ideas] increasing their own cash from $10 to a $20 value. The dollar-match shoppers contributed to over $20,000 in sales for participating Black businesses — generating a lucrative Juneteenth for many Black entrepreneurs.
In your experience, where do people typically get stuck in the process of starting a successful business — aside from the issue of access to capital and knowledge?
Lubazibwa: I think the most [common mistake] is that people don’t do their research before they start the business. They love their idea. They love the idea so much, they forget it’s not about them. Business is about customers. Most businesses fail because they have their idea, but they have not researched if there’s a need in the marketplace.