History of the Rock It! Lab

Benito Lubazibwa formed ReMix Ideas in July, 2017 to with the goal of building an entrepreneurial eco-system in the Black community in Little Rock. His original model focused on holding community-wide pitch contests with cash awards granted to the winners.

The first pitch contest was held on September 8, 2017 at the Robinson Center. More than 70 entrepreneurs expressed interest in pitching. Benito selected seven entrepreneurs to pitch on that evening. More than 200 people showed up to watch/support the pitch contest. The winner, Olumide Yerokun was awarded $1,000 for his clothing business Pidgin English Co, which is still going strong.

Benito and others in attendance were surprised at the tremendous level of interest exhibited at this first event. The enthusiastic response by the community encouraged Benito’s conviction that a business like ReMix, dedicated to building a burgeoning ecosystem of Black-owned start ups could succeed in Central Arkansas.

Meanwhile, across town, Pat Riley was also interested in the potential of entrepreneurship for building wealth in under-resourced communities. Pat’s orientation came from his affiliation with the Oakland based non-profit called BALLE (the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies – now known as Common Future). BALLE’s mission: To create local economies that work for all. Pat was part of a nation-wide cohort of investors, recruited by BALLE, who were interested in “impact investing” in their local economies.

It so happened that the BALLE group had organized a field trip to Little Rock in September, 2017. The kickoff meeting, held on September 10, convened a host of community leaders with the goal of catalyzing investment in grass roots economic development locally. During that meeting, Max Sprinkle, a local lawyer, spoke about the ReMix pitch contest he had attended two nights earlier and how much support and enthusiasm it had generated. While Max spoke, Pat wrote down Benito’s name and made plans to meet him. (Coincidentally, sitting at the same table with Max that day was CALS director Nate Coulter.)

Shortly after the BALLE event, Pat and Benito got together for the first time. United by a shared interest and goal, they talked about possibilities and began to meet with other potential collaborators. For instance, they met with the three main CDFI’s in Arkansas (Community Development Finance Institution), FORGE, Communities Unlimited and Southern Bancorp. They also met with the ASBTDC (UALR’s Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center), the Innovation Hub, Winrock International, Regions Bank, Philander Smith College and others.

In July, 2018 Pat sponsored a trip for Benito, CJ Sentell (Executive Director of FORGE), Chris Jones (Ex Dir of the Innovation Hub) and Chauncey Pettis (Director of Arkansas Women’s Business Center at Winrock) to visit Rising Tide Capital (RTC) in New Jersey. Pat knew of RTC because of their affiliation with BALLE. RTC’s mission is to “transform lives and communities through entrepreneurship” and they have been in operation since 2004. One of RTC’s primary programs of interest to Pat/Benito is their Community Business Academy.

Night Market

In July, 2018 Benito hosted the first Night Market at Bernice Gardens on South Main in downtown Little Rock. The idea of NM is to do for small arts and crafts vendors and food truck operators what the farmer’s market does for farmers. And, it proved to be a big hit.

The Night Market was held on the first Friday evening of the month during warm weather months. To spice things up, Benito added live music and other performers. The success of the market and the growing numbers led Benito to change venues to the River Market in 2019. In its new location, the Night Market grew in popularity and scope – it added vendors, food trucks, and music acts and attracted around 3,000 people each night. The crowd was diverse and the vibe was festive. Many people were disappointed when the pandemic caused the NM to be put on hold in the Spring of 2020.

Video of Night Market at River Market.

Video of Night Market at Bernice Garden

Business Academy

For almost a year, Benito worked on putting together a curriculum and a faculty to launch the ReMix Business Academy. The first class of the 12-week course launched in August, 2019 and was held on the campus of Philander Smith College. Fourteen aspiring entrepreneurs, 13 of them women, enrolled in the inaugural class.

The lead instructor for the Business Academy is Bruce James, a professor of Business and Economics at Philander Smith. Other faculty chosen to teach various aspects of the course came from the community and included: Julia Chears-Young founder of Precise Data Consulting, Martin Thoma CEO of Thoma & Thoma, John Chamberlain, Founder of ARKSYS and Jay Young, Director of Minority Business Development at FORGE among others.

The culmination of the course featured a pitch contest by graduates and was held at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center. The audience voted on the winner. As it turned out, the voting was so close that two class members each received $5,000 awards.

The second course was held via Zoom in the Spring of 2020. The third class is underway now and due to be completed in December 2020. Our hope was to hold the current class in the Rock it! Lab space at Main but the pandemic put that on hold for the time being.

Rock it! Lab

In January 2019, Benito Lubazibwa attended a strategy session for CALS that was intended to get feedback from community leaders. In that session Benito introduced the idea of creating an entrepreneurial hub inside the library system. That spark led to subsequent discussions between Benito, Nate Coulter and Pat Riley. The idea began to crystallize around creating a dedicated space on the northeast corner of the 5th floor of the Main branch as a site for the hub.

Architectural plans were drawn, grant funding was secured and the renovation of the space ensued. The construction project occurred in the Spring of 2020 while the library system was closed due to COVID concerns. The renovation was completed in July, 2020 and the hub was christened as the Rock it! Lab.

Rock it! Lab Name

Many names were discussed before settling on Rock it! Lab. The name was chosen because it works on several levels. The word ‘Rock’ is a nod to our location in Little Rock, AR. According to the Urban Dictionary – “Rock it” means to “do what you do in an outrageous and marvelous way.” And lastly the play on words of “Rocket Lab” connote a place of cutting edge innovation. It also gives rise to tag lines such as: “Helping entrepreneurs launch their business” or “Helping new businesses achieve lift off”.

Shop Black Live

Ever creative, Benito devised a way for Black entrepreneurs, struggling from the disruption of the pandemic, to showcase their businesses in a safe format. Launched in June, 2020, SBL is a QVC-type show highlighting local (Central Arkansas) Black-owned businesses. The show began its run by streaming episodes on the SBL Facebook page. Currently the show is being recorded and curated on YouTube. The show airs on Saturday’s from 3-4 pm. To date, there have been 20 episodes featuring more than 60 local Black entrepreneurs.

This idea arose in connection with the Shop Black Live show. Benito recruited 20 people from the community who agreed to contribute $50/month to award grants of $1,000 to Black entrepreneurs. A committee of the donors chooses among applicants to select the grantees. The first $1,000 grant was awarded August 9 to Jeremy/Shantell Hill owners of Well Brewed Coffee Company.

Freedom Project

In the April 2020, Common Future (formerly BALLE) launched an initiative to select “6-8 local economy leaders in the southern region of the US…to build equitable, inclusive local economies.” The cohort is called the “Common Future Bridge Fellows” and Benito was selected for this program.

Benito’s capstone project for the Bridge Fellows initiative is called the Freedom Project (FP). The FP uses entrepreneurship as a re-entry strategy by equipping African Americans who have been formerly incarcerated with tools and resources required to start and run successful businesses.

The current class of the Business Academy includes a young woman who was incarcerated at age 16 and wrote a book after her release. Her business idea is to create an agency to help the formerly incarcerated find employment. In October, she was selected as the recipient of a $1,000 Power of Many grant.

The Cox Building

The idea to utilize part of the Cox building as an adjunct to the Rock it! Lab offerings is a very recent one. Pat, Nate and Benito have had several conversations about the space and its potential use. Nothing has been set in stone but Nate has given us the tentative “okay” to develop plans.

The model discussed so far would use the first floor (the floor where the restaurant is located) as a retail space for RIL-type entrepreneurs. We have envisioned this as operating as a kind of co-op where the vendors would staff the shop on a rotating basis. As an example – we might have 20 different vendors with their products on display. Those 20 would devise a rotating work schedule to be “on the floor”. We have talked about the vendors paying a small “booth” rental/month that could be offset against hours worked – or we could take a percentage of sales as rent to help pay for the space. Benito knows of many such vendors who could benefit from a space like this. He would hand pick the ones who are most able to both benefit and contribute to the successful running of this type operation.

We’ve also talked about the possibility of using the restaurant in a similar matter – perhaps on a rotating basis of food truck type operators. This space could also provide a “proof of concept” market place for food oriented Business Academy class members. The restaurant space offers the possibility of creating a workshop or training that is specifically tailored for Food Service businesses.

On the ground or basement floor we have talked about creating a “maker space” for artisans. There could be space and equipment to support artists, seamstresses, jewelry makers, tee shirt makers, etc. We could also offer a 3-D printer. Benito says that many of the entrepreneurs he advises and works with could flourish in a space like this. There could be a small, affordable booth rental to help support the place financially. (The Cox Building could also become the home of Shop Black Live).

This type of space – a low risk, low cost to both create, make and sell products for under-resourced entrepreneurs – is a “game changer”. In combination with the Rock it! Lab the impact potential is immense. We are not aware of any other entity in the US that has this combination of resources and programming to support our target demographic.

The Cox building represents a huge opportunity but it will also require a lot of work and planning. The ideas above represent the current thinking of Pat/Benito but many details and relationships will have to worked out and all of that will take time.