Pitches and Dreams at the Rock It Lab

On Thursday, May 30, the air was electric in the historic Cox Building, the home of the Rock It! Lab; not just from the lively tunes being played by DJ Swift 720, nor the food from Afrobites (although it was delicious), but from the excitement of listening to five soon-to-graduate individuals taking part in the pitch competition.  

The Rock It! Lab (RIL) is a partnership between the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) and Advancing Black Entrepreneurship (ABE) that offers a variety of programs and services, including the twelve-week incubator, a co-working space for both office workers and a maker’s space that includes easels, a screen printing machine, and a set of sewing machines, as well as the opportunity for one-on-one business coaching and access to capital.  

Eighteen individuals graduated, including Morgan Perry who gave the student commencement speech. Perry is the owner of Me.Marie Style, a clothing company that makes made to measure couture clothing with hopes to hire a seamstress and begin offering a ready to wear clothing line. Perry was the youngest participant of the night, at 16, she’s juggling creating a business while still finishing high school.  “From a young age, I have always known what I wanted to be, I began sewing at age 7. My mom enrolled me in a fashion school at age 9.” Perry already has 450 hours of fashion school under her belt, and now, she and her mother, April Phillips-Perry, have completed Rock It! Lab’s twelve-week intensive business incubator.  

Perry was one of five graduates that participated in the RIL Pitch Competition, where the entrepreneurs were tasked with giving an elevator pitch for their business and “sell” the panel of judges on their respective businesses in a Shark Tank-style competition. Each entrepreneur had 5 minutes to explain their business and convince the panel of judges to pick them. On the line? A $5,000 prize.  

The panel consisted of Monique Carswell, Director of the Walmart.org Center for Racial Equity, who also served as the keynote speaker; Bruce James, who teaches incubator classes at RIL; and Benito Lubazibwa, the Executive Director of ABE and Remix Ideas.  

Graduates that participated in the pitch competition included Jerald Mitchell, a new father who realized a need for safe TV mounting solutions to assist families, started TV Mounting Pro where he not only installs televisions, but is working to expand into his own line of television mounts. Next was Madison Pitts with Nina’s Touch, a business that offers medical-grade skin care products that range from daily use to items that are created for eczema and psoriasis. Prince Hollidy pitched his idea for his custom jewelry line, Coils, Crystals, and Culture, where he hand-makes sophisticated jewelry at an accessible price by working with a variety of materials. 

Whitney Easterling spoke passionately about her business, The Guideline by WhitneyE, that provides cranial prosthesis for women who have suffered hair loss, something that she has struggled with from a young age. She described the high-quality products she creates and announced a blossoming partnership with a local cancer institute. She capped off her pitch by pulling an individual from the crowd and revealing that the woman was wearing one of her pieces. After graduation, when it was announced that Easterly had won the pitch competition and the $5,000 prize, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. In her parting speech, she told the group, “Don’t give up on yourself; hold on…I love my classmates, you’re beautiful, you’re amazing, keep going.” 

During the event, it was announced that the Rock It! Lab was awarded a $75,000 grant from Walmart to continue assisting aspiring entrepreneurs achieve their dreams of business ownership.  

When Benito Lubazibwa addressed the group, he told them that they needed three things, “Courage – you must have courage to imagine a different future. Curiosity – always be a part of your life. Be a student of the world, continue to learn. When you stop learning, you stop living. Compassion – be sure that it’s not all about the money, you need to make a difference in the community.” He went on to tell them that more than 200 people applied for a space in the cohort. He cited that many former students have moved from five figure businesses to six figure businesses, and one has moved into seven figure business. He spoke about his love of libraries and reiterated that all of the RIL services are free thanks to the Central Arkansas Library System. 

Eighteen new business owners left that evening with a sense of accomplishment and the tools to help them become the entrepreneurs they want to see in the world. Each of the pitch participants spoke not only of future desires for themselves but they all earmarked where they would like to create cultural impacts and give back to their respective causes. For the members of the Rock It! Lab, it’s about not just improving their own place in life, but also lifting up those around them.  

The graduates were gifted with parting advice from Monique, “The great thing about being part of a cohort is that you are not alone. You have people with you on your journey. Don’t let others place limitations on who you can be.”