|By Amrita Khalid|
Being a budding entrepreneur can be isolating, especially if you’re in a neighborhood that has roots in a complicated past. Just ask Anacostia resident Tambra Raye Stevenson, the founder of NativSol Kitchen, a cooking school that focuses on cuisine from the African diaspora.
“Particularly East of the River, it can get even more lonesome because outside of your four walls, all you hear is something negative about East of the River,” Stevenson said.
Which is why Stevenson was at “Sidehustle Saturday,” a monthly gathering of aspiring and established entrepreneurs hosted by small-business incubator The Hive. Offering “motivation and mimosas” on its Facebook invite, the free event attracts a bevy of like-minded creators and thinkers that gather in the basement of The Hive 2.0. Entrepreneurs share frustrations and offer advice over bran muffins and bagels. One meeting included the founder of an online music school, a jewelry designer, the owner of a restaurant finder website and Stevenson, whose cooking school seeks to connect African Americans with the healthier cooking styles of African cuisines.
At the meeting, Stevenson brings up the fact that while she prices her cooking classes for Ward 8 residents, most of her students end up being from outside the neighborhood. Stevenson, who has a background in nutrition and studied health communications at Tufts, sought to address the underlying health issues associated with soul food, such as obesity. Her “African Heritage Cooking” and “Food for the Soul” classes seek to equip the community to “cook, shop and eat their way back to health.”
Yet getting the word out in Anacostia is difficult, and a problem faced not just by Stevenson, but many a business owner at Sidehustle Saturday. As Stevenson shares her struggles with outreach, her fellow entrepreneurs nod their heads in recognition of an all-too-familiar problem. What do the residents of Anacostia and Ward 8 want in their neighborhoods? Where do they want to eat, shop and be entertained? The answers to these questions are crucial for the entrepreneurs striving to break new ground “East of the River.”
“I will fault myself in terms of I’m not standing outside the Metro handing out flyers, I’m not going into businesses all along the Main Street,” said Stevenson. “I could get interns and volunteers, but I’m just not at that level.”
“I think the best ideas are when people need a service,” advises Nikki Peele, who, as the managing director of The Hive, serves as part-time cheerleader for the Anacostia business community. Peele suggests Union Market, a “food incubator” in the NoMa district that allows food vendors restricted by the price of opening their own restaurant to make use of its commercial kitchen space. Stevenson hasn’t heard of Union Market, but wants to look into it.
“Since my world is food, I saw that I really need food space. Since I own my home, my home is my office,” said Stevenson, referring to The Hive and The Hive 2.0’s primary focus: office space for small business owners on the rise. Members pay a monthly fee to get 24/7 access to Hive facilities and make use of its meeting space and office equipment such as projectors and copier machines.
“They should do Hive 3.0.—an incubator food space,” said Stevenson, laughing.
The fact that Peele guided Stevenson toward membership in another incubator and not The Hive speaks to a certain giving nature within the organization feels more like than a non-profit than a business. The Hive is partially funded by the ARCH Development Corporation and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. Almost all of its events it hosts are free, including a four-part workshop on crowdfunding for your small business or a tutorial on branding.
“I’m the world’s great procrastinator. So just being here with these like-minded people captivates me into doing something more consistent,” said Jennifer Bowen, a jewelry designer. April’s Sidehustle Saturday was Bowen’s first Hive event. Though Bowen is from Woodbridge, Va., she is attracted to the “wealth of information” available in the Anacostia entrepreneur community. Bowen said the event made her realize she needed to be persistent, to “be about your business,” see the connections between technology and art, and not forgot the essential business components of starting a creative venture.
“You know, because I could have all the art in the world — and I have the creativity to get it done,” said Bowen. “But if I don’t have anybody to show me how to display the art, it’s going to die.”
A $25,000 grant from Capitol One Bank made the construction of The Hive 2.0 on Anacostia’s Good Hope Road possible. The original Hive, located on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, currently hosts 17 small businesses and non-profits. The original Hive building is rented by ARCH, which relies on the income it acquires from tenants. Hive 2.0 is unique in that ARCH owns the building it occupies, which also housed the ARCH Training Center and will soon host the Anacostia Arts Center.
For Terry Scott, a consultant at the ARCH Development Corporation, the challenge of developing Anacostia lays in planning its future in respect to its past.
“Right now, the object is to transform the neighborhood, but also to make sure that you don’t displace people,” said Scott in an interview after Sidehustle Saturday. “That you help them enhance their standard of living, and not just by doing what needs to be done, and by dealing with the resources we have.”
Scott, who previously served as a senior coordinator at StoryCorps, the national oral history project that features on NPR’s Morning Edition, was attracted to The Hive because of the role it played in incubating “creative economies” and small businesses.
For a neighborhood like Anacostia, Scott sees the rise of the creative class as vital to its economic progress. Yet for the creative class to prosper, there is a need for an economy that is flexible in turn, which is where the 24/7 component of The Hive proves most useful. Scott feels that the start-up, incubator environment is a testament to fact that the work-body politic has changed.
Technology has enabled people to telecommute. There is no longer a need to work the German-assembly line model of 9 to 5. Artistic entrepreneurs need an environment that runs on their hours. At the very least, they need a mailing address.
“By focusing on bricks and mortars, you can attract these kinds of people to this neighborhood,” Scott said. “Brains and minds are here. It’s smart to invest in bricks and mortars, but also brains and minds. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Ward 8, which encompasses Anacostia, holds the lowest number of retail stores per capita and the least commercial development in D.C. Three out of 10 storefronts in Anacostia are vacant, and ARCH took advantage of this by launching LUMEN8 Anacostia, a yearly arts festival that transforms the storefronts into temporary creative spaces for local artists and creative entrepreneurs. The festival, which premiered last year and featured the work of 100 artists, is set to take place this year on June 22, and will run until August.
But Scott is weary of what is commonly referred to as “artists colonizers,” a sub-culture of well-meaning, but clueless artists who neglect to take into account the communities they work to revitalize. Scott gave one example from when he lived in Brooklyn and would regularly attend community artists meetings. He remembers how a group of artists brainstorming for “Art in the Park” considered portraying erotic content.
“I said, ‘Look, children and families are going to be here and they are not going to want to see this shit,’ ” said Scott. Free speech was the defense used by the artists in question, which appalled Scott.
The need to find out what the long-time residents of Anacostia want to see in their changing neighborhood inspired Scott to plan what he calls a “cultural census.” Scott is currently seeking funding for “Creation Without Representation,” which will compile data from the people that live in Ward 8 about the role that arts and culture play in their lives in order to better inform local programming. The project will soup in data from the U.S. Census to highlight relevant demographics and will use OpenStreetMaps, a free open-source mapping technology.
“You can’t just come into a neighborhood and say, ‘We’re going to help you out,’” said Scott. “Who invited you? Who invited the artists? What about the people that live here, who have been here 20 years?”