LR lab gives a helping hand to startups

Almost 125 years ago, Thomas Cox expanded his Dardanelle machinery business to Little Rock. He built a new production facility in the 300 block of East Markham Street and a warehouse, now known as the Cox Building, centrally located in the River Market District.

In 1998, the Central Arkansas Library System resumed operations and remodeled and reallocated the warehouse using capital improvement bonds. More recently, the four-story brick building was used as a second-hand bookstore, art space, and included a small cafe bar and sandwich shop.

The building returns to its roots on Thursday, focused on growing businesses and creating jobs in Little Rock. The library system is partnering with entrepreneur Benito Lubazibwa to open Rock It Lab, a business incubator initiative to train entrepreneurs from under-represented minority groups.

“This will change the face of entrepreneurship in Arkansas and democratize the process to give anyone with a good idea a chance to be successful,” said Lubazibwa. “Anyone who has a great idea for a business deserves the opportunity to develop it and watch it grow.”

Rock It Lab is a business incubator program for black and Hispanic women and Arkansans, demographics who struggle to secure the resources and capital to build a successful business. The goal is to turn an idea into a profitable business capable of growing its operations and contributing to economic growth in central Arkansas.

The library system provides a modern working environment for entrepreneurs free of charge. Rock It Lab will occupy three floors in the Cox building and each floor will have a different function. Entrepreneurs will have access to sewing machines, screen printing, embroidery materials, open-plan workspace and meeting spaces to encourage collaboration and retail space to showcase and sell the products they create.

In addition, the former café area will house food vendors who will take turns presenting their products.

The incubator “is unlike anything currently available in central Arkansas,” said library system executive director Nate Coulter. The lab fills a niche in the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by focusing on women and people of color who have an idea but may not yet have started a business because they can’t or can’t know how to access technical and financial resources. resources needed to start a business.

Most of the entrepreneurial support organizations in Arkansas focus on supporting startups that have been capitalized and are functioning.

“We want to attract entrepreneurs whose hopes and dreams are dying in the parking lot of the bank,” said Lubazibwa, founder of Advanced Black Entrepreneurship and Remix Ideas, an organization that provides a business academy and consulting services to entrepreneurs. minority groups. “We’re really focused on supporting under-represented entrepreneurs – the groups who have struggled to get the access and resources they need to be successful.”

The partnership has been nurtured since January 2019, when Lubazibwa attended a strategy session aimed at rekindling the community’s interest in the services available through the library system. Lubazibwa introduced the idea of ​​creating an entrepreneurial hub within the library system. The system recognized the effort aligned with its long-standing mission of providing vital information to educate and inform communities.

“The Rock It! Lab is about lifelong learning, community engagement and economic development by encouraging small business start-ups,” Coulter said in a statement.

“A key part of the public library’s mission is to provide people across the community with access to the information and resources that help them,” he said. “Thanks to Rock It! Lab, some business owners will for the first time have access to mentors, consultations, equipment, and physical space to sell their products.

The library system will be joined by Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and Lubazibwa on Thursday at 11 a.m. to officially launch the initiative. The lab will give entrepreneurs a chance to test their business idea and find out if it can produce a viable business product, the mayor said in a statement last week.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and increasing access to learning, growth and business development opportunities is one way public-private partnerships can help entrepreneurs,” said Scott . “I applaud this CALS-ABE partnership. Nate and Benito have both been market expansion champions and have deliberated on creating a more diverse economy in Little Rock.

The lab will use a “lean canvas business model” to accept applicants, Lubazibwa said. This approach relies on a one-page business plan rather than an elaborate multi-page description.

Entrepreneurs will engage with mentors and technical support teams to develop short, medium and long term goals during their six months in the incubator. The lab team will have the flexibility to adapt to the individual needs of each entrepreneur, providing services that include mentoring, financial advice, branding and pricing, among others.

“It will be a place where you can test your product,” Lubazibwa said. “This is really an opportunity to give a proof of concept and start building a business that can easily scale and help grow the economy and create jobs in Arkansas.”

Other entrepreneurship support organizations in the region are joining the effort. The Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center will provide services, according to Laura Fine, state director of the program.

“[The center’s] Free advice and market research rounds out Rock It Lab’s range of services to help new entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses, ”said Fine. “Through this partnership, we will give entrepreneurs the tools to start strong and stay in business once they start, fostering meaningful community and economic impact through job creation, new business services and pathways to economic mobility. “

The lab’s goal is to train around 100 entrepreneurs per year, Lubazibwa said. “We want to create and nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs,” he said, noting that the incubator will be a welcoming environment that encourages collaboration and the sharing of best practices.

“Entrepreneurship is a lonely affair,” said Lubazibwa. “Having a supportive community to lean on makes the journey easier and the mountain to climb is not that high.”

Applications for the program can be submitted at

For the library system, the lab is a natural offshoot of its community outreach efforts, according to Nathan James, deputy executive director of system collections technology and innovation.

“It’s all part of the learning experience that the library has always provided,” said James, who is the system’s primary contact for lab operations. “We are providing these services free of charge to help lift up underrepresented areas or our communities. All we ask of participants is to give back once they have completed the program. This is first and foremost about an effort to pay for the next. “

The retail store in the new The Rock It! Lab Wednesday July 14, 2021 at the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / Staton Breidenthal)

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