Little Rock lab offers startups a hand

Original article from Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s website here.

Nearly 125 years ago, Thomas Cox expanded his Dardanelle machinery business to Little Rock. He built new production facilities in the 300 block of East Markham Street and a warehouse, now known as the Cox building that’s in the center of the River Market District.

In 1998, the Central Arkansas Library System took over operations and renovated and repurposed the warehouse with the help of capital improvement bonds. Most recently, the four-story brick building was a used bookstore, an art space and included a small coffee bar and sandwich shop.

On Thursday, the building returns to its roots, focused on business growth and providing jobs in Little Rock. The library system is forming a partnership with entrepreneur Benito Lubazibwa to open Rock It Lab, a business incubator initiative to cultivate underrepresented minority-group entrepreneurs.

Rock It Lab is a business incubator program for women and Black and Hispanic Arkansans, demographics that struggle to secure the resources and capital needed to build a successful business. The goal is to turn an idea into a profitable company capable of scaling operations and contributing to economic growth in Central Arkansas.

“We want to attract the entrepreneurs whose hopes and dreams die in the bank parking lot,” said Lubazibwa, founder of Advancing Black Entrepreneurship and Remix Ideas, an organization that provides a business academy and consulting services for minority-group entrepreneurs. “We are really focused on supporting underrepresented entrepreneurs — the groups that have struggled to get the access and the resources they need to be successful.”

The partnership has been nurtured since January 2019, when Lubazibwa attended a strategy session to reignite community interest in 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 longtime mission of providing vital information to educate and inform communities.

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

“This is all part of the learning experience that the library has always provided,” said James, who is the system’s primary contact for the lab’s operations. “We’re providing these services at no charge to help lift up underrepresented areas or our communities. All we’re asking the participants to do is to give back once they finish the program. This is all about an effort to pay it forward.”

See the full article from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette here.