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Where Business Meets Culture: Highlighting The U

While small businesses and social enterprises aim to support the growth in our communities, they too require a system of support. When two entrepreneurs could not find vital resources designed for their success, they instead resolved to become their own solution.

SocialVentures had the pleasure of sitting down with Lolo Mychael and George Zarebski, the co-founders of the Urban Business Development Center, also known as The U. During our time together we discussed their stories as social innovators as well as how they now impact the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Thaddeus Jones (TJ): Can you speak to what made you realize our city was in need of an Entrepreneur Support Organization (ESO) specifically for People Of Color?

Lolo Mychael (LM): After returning to the entrepreneurial space, I looked for resources. I had gone to a few SBDC (Small Business Development Center) courses and one thing I remembered was feeling intimidated. It’s this very black and white corporate space that made me feel I needed to know more than I actually knew. Most of the presenters did not look like me, they did not have the same background as me, and some of them were not even entrepreneurs. I didn’t understand a lot of the terminology they were using and since I was afraid to ask questions, I often left with a laundry list of things that I needed to do while having no idea how to do it. I had multiple conversations about wishing there was a place where Black entrepreneurs could go to get the raw lessons, or someone to say, ‘These are the steps that you need to take in order to be successful.’ I kept telling people that I did not know what that looked like and that made me want to become that space of providing those resources. This was all affirmed when I met Ski [George].

George Zarebski (GZ): Around 2019, I was at a place in life where I was able to really hit the ground and get engaged. I started observing all of these different entrepreneurial spaces, Black-owned as well as suburban ecosystems. I realized there was a lot of love for early, fast-growth start-ups but there did not seem to be any focus on the main street, mom-and-pop shops that were bootstrapped trying to make it work in between jobs. Within those organizations there was a lot of camaraderie, there was great discussion full of people sharing stories about our shared struggles but I did not see anyone that was actually putting in the work to fill those gaps. Nobody was providing a space where people could come as they were and get access to the vital networks and resources that they needed.

TJ: You both have pivoted through some unprecedented times while becoming the resources you have sought all along. What does The U now offer? Can you describe what that relationship looks like between The U and social entrepreneurs that may be reading this article?

LM: Depending on how you engage with us you are going to have a different experience. The U has three main components, the first being The U Studio or our physical space. This is where we provide a culturally competent space for creatives to come and create their content and provide an environment they can feel comfortable in. We also build up our membership here which helps grow our network by connecting individuals with the tools, resources, and community members they may need to advance to the next step.

Our second core is dedicated to entrepreneurial education. These include youth programs, pop-up workshops as well as our most popular program, The Urban Launch Accelerator. We have two accelerators a year which are 10-week courses where we take a cohort of entrepreneurs and assist them with taking their business from ideation to launch.

Lastly, our third core is Theory University. This is where we developed a culturally competent curriculum that we lease out to other organizations that are looking to impact Black and brown businesses. We put a lot of love into this area because there are so many unique barriers we must address when it comes to entrepreneurs of color.

GZ: I would like to elaborate on a point Lo mentioned briefly, and it is The Urban Launch Accelerator. This is one of our largest areas of impact because this is where we essentially become the roadmap for entrepreneurs and even aspiring entrepreneurs. After coming to us and telling us their idea or plan, our goal is to act as a map you may find in an airport that says, “You are here, trying to get to this destination.”

The program is meant to determine where those people are in their business journey and build out that map to help them get to wherever they need to go. After the accelerator, we still focus on long-term engagement so that we are helping businesses in that complete journey even post-launch. We do this by leveraging our community organizations to promote more growth. Generally, five years is our time frame to stick around with a business and make sure they are doing okay.

TJ: With so much traction it seems The U has no plans on stopping soon. Where do you see The U in the next five years with the idea that nothing can stop this momentum?

GZ: At a much higher level in size, capacity, and the number of people that we can bring in and help out. We envision branching out to other communities that could use our support. A personal goal of mine has been to go back home and pay it forward to the community I grew up in. Ultimately, we want to spread out to other cities that also need support to begin leveraging the network and community that we have built here in Columbus.

LM: Our goal is also to help more with programming that already exists. I’m huge on not reinventing the wheel. For all of the curriculum or programming that is established in an area, we are looking to come in and do process improvement. We are constantly asking, “How do we make this feel more competent to the audience? How can we make this more impactful?” We do that here in Columbus really well and we are striving to do that on a national level. There are so many dollars that are being placed in the sector of diversity and inclusion yet in reality, people are just doing surveys and participating in programs that don’t really impact them. Not only do we want to make sure the end is impactful, but we want to know that there is a true change in equity and equality. That’s what we are here to do, we are here to move the needle when it comes to justice for people of color in entrepreneurship. The U is changing the way that this ecosystem functions as a whole by making it more equitable and less fragmented.

TJ: You both are trailblazing innovators who are helping advance needed solutions and redefining what it means to “learn how to do business.” Our community is fortunate to have The U.