The Story of Urbana.


Urbana brought to life the dream of accelerating African American businesses from hobby or early stage to business launch. As a part of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League, the African American Collective and L.E. Johnson, Assistant Director of Community Engagement, have been hard at work looking for ways to move the African American community forward and upward in Battle Creek. “One thing that the team recognized is a lot of individuals in the African American community that are already in business,” explained Johnson. “We wanted to mature, evolve, and empower these already existing businesses that are not on the radar of the community. When we heard the news about BC Cargo marketplace, we thought this would be a good opportunity to employ one of our value systems, which is Ujamaa.” Ujamaa means “familyhood” in Swahili and supports the concept that the collective community becomes stronger as individuals work together – which applies even in business. BC Cargo inherently models Ujamaa and proved to be the ideal starting point for the African American Collective because of its compact size, flexibility, and support system.

The downtown location of BC Cargo was not necessarily seen as the ideal center of commerce by African American start-up businesses, however, as the season progressed Urbana’s business model adapted to meet market demands and cultivate business success. Urbana’s business model is different than others within BC Cargo as merchants rotate within Urbana’s space throughout the season for shorter durations of time. This model allows Urbana to offer the small business experience to a broader array of African American entrepreneurs within a consistent location. Early on, the Urbana team identified that initial product sales were inconsistent because of the disparity between the traditional afro-centric merchandise offered and the primary base of customers that were unfamiliar with the products. Once Urbana began the process of selecting products and merchants to intentionally meet the cross cultural needs of the customer base at BC Cargo, merchants began to thrive.

According to Hazel Le Mon, Economic Priority Team Leader for the Southwestern Urban League, the Small Business Development Team provided guidance on the merchandising of Urbana. “The team gave us a lot of display assistance and helped us envision how to lay out our products in this type of space,” reveals Hazel. The Southwestern Michigan Urban League was thankful for the team’s ability to have an open and honest dialogue about how Urbana can best integrate into the BC Cargo community without losing sight of their purpose and culture. In fact, the month of September gave life to “Soul Music Thursdays” co-sponsored by BC Cargo and Urbana as a way to musically celebrate African American heritage. “The Small Business Development Fund has been strategic partners of Urbana. They are very open to having tough conversations that has helped us get to where we are now,” reflects Johnson. “The team wants to make BC Cargo a space for diverse communities to feel comfortable shopping. And we believe we (Urbana) will play a major role in that through this partnership and assistance.”

"The true entrepreneur is a doer, not a dreamer."

– Unknown

The Urbana Team

Ideas became our words. Words became our actions. Actions changed our lives.

Kyra Wallace

President/CEO, Southwestern Michigan Urban League

L.E. Johnson

Associate Director of Community Engagement, Southwestern Michigan Urban League