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.
"This is going to change the face of entrepreneurship in Arkansas and democratize the process to give everyone who has a good idea a chance to succeed," Lubazibwa said. "Anyone who has a good idea for a business deserves an opportunity to develop it and see it grow."
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.
The library system is providing a modern work environment to the entrepreneurs at no charge. Rock It Lab will occupy three floors in the Cox building and each floor will serve a different function. Entrepreneurs will have access to sewing machines, a screen printer, embroidery equipment, open workspace and meeting areas to encourage collaboration and a retail area to feature and sell the goods they create.
In addition, the former cafe space will house food vendors to feature their products on a rotating basis.
The incubator "is unlike anything currently available in Central Arkansas," said library system Executive Director Nate Coulter. The lab does fill a niche in the area's entrepreneurial ecosystem by focusing on women and people of color who have an idea but may not have yet started a business because they can't, or don't know how to, access the technical and financial resources needed to start a company.
Most entrepreneurial support organizations in Arkansas concentrate on support for startups that have been capitalized and are operating.
"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.
"The Rock It! Lab is about continuing education, community engagement and economic development through encouraging small business startups," Coulter said in a statement.
"A key element of the public library's mission is to provide people from all across the community with access to information and resources that help them," he said. "Through the Rock It! Lab, some business owners will for the first time have access to mentors, consultation, equipment and a physical space to sell their products."
The library system will be joined by Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and Lubazibwa at 11 a.m. Thursday to officially start the initiative. The lab will give entrepreneurs a chance to test their business idea and learn if it can produce a viable commercial product, the mayor said in a statement last week.
"Small business is the backbone of our economy, and increasing access to opportunity to learn, grow, and expand one's business is one way public-private partnerships can assist entrepreneurs," Scott said. "I applaud this CALS-ABE partnership. Both Nate and Benito have been champions for expanding the marketplace and deliberate about creating a more diverse Little Rock economy."
The lab will use a "lean canvas business model" in accepting applicants, Lubazibwa said, That approach relies on a one-page business plan as opposed to an elaborate multi-page description.
Entrepreneurs will engage with mentors and technical support teams to develop short- , mid- and long-term goals during the six months they spend in the incubator. The lab team will have the flexibility to adapt to the individual needs of each entrepreneur, delivering services that include mentoring, financial consulting, branding and pricing, among others.
"This is going to be a place where you can test drive your product," Lubazibwa said. "It's really an opportunity to do a proof of concept and begin developing a business that can easily scale and contribute to economic growth and create jobs in Arkansas."
Other entrepreneurial support organizations in the area 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] no-cost consulting and market research complement the Rock It Lab's suite of services to help new entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses," Fine said. "Through this partnership, we will give entrepreneurs 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 graduate about 100 entrepreneurs annually, Lubazibwa said. "We want to create and raise a new generation of entrepreneurs," he said, noting that the incubator will be a welcoming environment that encourages collaboration and sharing of best practices.
"Entrepreneurship is a lonely business," Lubazibwa said. "Having a community of support to rely on makes the journey easier and the mountain to climb is not so high."
Applications for the program can be submitted to cals.org/rock-it-lab/.
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."