Zig-Zagging: the path to success is never a straight line 

The inaugural class of the Rock It Lab Incubator (RIL) Program members graduated! The Incubator program is an intensive 6-month commitment where participating entrepreneurs are given the tools to learn how to navigate the world of business ownership.

Owner and founder of Advancing Black Entrepreneurship, Benito Lubazibwa spoke at length on the challenges that entrepreneurs, specifically minority owners face and the tools that the RIL can provide. He emphasized that the RIL provides four kinds of capital- knowledge, financial, social and possibly, the most important, hope. When discussing the idea of barriers to funding, Lubazibwa went on to remark that often people say teach a man to fish; but then you discover that the lake is polluted and that the playing field is not set up equally for all who want to own a business. This gets to the core of what the RIL aims to do – build a more equitable and just entrepreneurial ecosystem here in Arkansas.
Statistics shared that night included over 350 entrepreneurs being served during the 2021 year, with 80% of those being women. And over 1,000 hours spent consulting entrepreneurs both through the Incubator class as well as one-on-one mentorships.

Lakeisha Sharpley, a graduate, spoke about what her time in the program meant to her. She was appreciative of the opportunities that have been provided, including the ability to sell products directly to customers through the River Shop without the overhead of her own shop, nor the costs typically associated with pop-up events. She values the community that has been created among her class as well as her newfound desire to take risks. She discussed the amount of knowledge she has been able to gain through guest speakers and how she has learned “the unvoiced information that is typically kept away from us.” She ended her speech by saying that she came into the program with a small toolbox and now she has a big toolbox, full of information. Sharpley is a teacher at the Little Rock School District and is the owner of Lux + Soul, where she sells home décor and self-care items including candles and loungewear.

Keynote Speaker and Executive Director of CALS, Nate Coulter spoke about the history of the RIL and how the program came to be. He discussed that initially, this entrepreneurial hub was going to be housed on the 5th floor of the Main Library and that some funds were even spent there to get the space created; but then the opportunity to instead locate the RIL in the Cox building was presented and it was agreed upon that this was where it should have always been. He surmised that much like the graduates in the room, the path to success is never a straight line but takes persistence and patience.

Twenty-three graduates were awarded certificates of completion of the program. Many of these faces will stay with the RIL as mentors for the next group, while some are already diving into their respective projects. For instance, Corey Nelson announced the opening of his restaurant, Chicago Flamin’ Grill in Beebe. Lubazibwa ended with an African proverb, “No person is born great, a great person is created while others are sleeping.”

The highlight of the night was the announcement of the Demo Day winner. Weeks prior, the graduates all pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges. One stood out above the others, despite the lack of a formal PowerPoint presentation, the judges were overcome by Hezekiah Pierce and his company, Hezekiah Lawn Care, LLC and the passion he had for it. A shining example of the positive effect of extending grace and second chances, Pierce has spent time in prison. He served his sentence and upon release, became a resident of Our House. During his time in the Incubator program at the RIL, he lived at Our House and spoke at length about his plans to open a business, never missing a class. He recently secured his first apartment and is now living on his own.

Pierce sat shocked while his fellow graduates and Our House staff cheered and stood for him. Lubazibwa then announced that in order to help Pierce with his lawncare business a zero-turn lawnmower, trimmer, blower and a trailer had been purchased for him. Everyone was invited outside to see him accept his prize.

Guests then returned to the second floor of the Cox Building for drinks, live music and food from AfroBites catering.
Congratulations to the Spring 2022 RIL Incubator graduating class! We can’t wait to see what you accomplish in Little Rock and across the state.