Business

Howard Alumna Creates Space For Black Creatives In Savannah

Raisa Habersham
Savannah Morning News, Ga.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Elbi El is the founder of “The Culturist Union”, an inclusive multifunctional coffeehouse for artisans in Savannah. The union provides more than just a space in an environment that you would get at a normal coffee house. There’ll be events, programs, discussions, and forums that all cater to Black creatives.

Savannah

One of my comfort movies is “Beauty Shop,” with Queen Latifah (I’m a sucker for anything with Queen Latifah in it, to be honest). The movie, set in Atlanta, is centered on a Gina Norris hairstylist who quits her job at an upscale salon ran by the pompous Jorge Christophe (Kevin Bacon), to start her own shop.

Norris faces her hiccups along the way with getting a loan, keeping the electricity on, and random check-ins from the state board orchestrated by a jealous Jorge. But through it all, she perseveres.

It’s a light-hearted comedy that you shouldn’t take seriously at all (It was made in 2005 when Baby Phat, Phat Farm, Pelle Pelle, and other “urban” brands were still the thing to wear. Frankly, I miss sporting my FUBU.) But there are so many lessons in “Beauty Shop,” namely overcoming the fear of creating your own business and prospering despite the obstacles that come your way.

I spoke with Elbi Elm, founder of The Culturist Union, an inclusive multifunctional coffeehouse for artisans. I asked her what advice she had for other entrepreneurs, and her words were as clear as the Nike slogan: Just do it. Elm said you never know what will happen until you try.
So, to anyone looking to become an entrepreneur, make that leap.— Raisa Habersham

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Former SCAD student and Howard University grad Elbi Elm wants to create a community for Black creatives to foster community. And she’s doing just that with The Culturist Union (TCU), a cultural hub for Black creatives that prides itself on being more than a meetup space. Ahead of the venue’s launch, Elm spoke to The 912 about why she’s launching TCU, her background in DEI work and why she loves The 912.

Raisa Habersham: Tell us about your latest venture, The Culturist Union (TCU).

Elbi Elm: “The Culturist Union is a coffeehouse and an artisan marketplace that is centered around Black creatives. We’re going to provide more than just a space in an environment that you would get at a normal coffee house. There’ll be events, programs, discussions, and forums that cater to creatives. We also have a podcast room in the space, an area for a Black library, and an area for entertainment, which all help center a person and provide a cultural hub in a community space.”

RH: I love it. Tell us a little bit about why you decided to pursue this project in particular.

EE: “I’m a military brat and I was also in the military. And everywhere you go, the first thing that you do when you land into a new environment or a new space is find a group of people that you can connect with. It’s the same when people go to college. For me moving to Savannah, the first time as a SCAD student, as a person who was fresh out of the military, with absolutely no idea how to be a civilian, I was drowning and floundering because I didn’t have that group of people anymore.

“I kept looking throughout Savannah to find a place that I could go to on a Tuesday at 2 p.m. and connect with someone, and there wasn’t a place. There are places that you can go [and fellowship], obviously, but there are not places that have made that a priority. There’s a place you can go for WiFi, there’s a place you can go for good coffee, there’s a place you can go for your favorite pastry, but there is not a place that you can go to have a community connection. So, instead of doing what so many of my friends I’ve done, which is move to bigger cities, such as Atlanta, New York, LA, or DC, I decided that I just wanted to try my hand at creating this space and cultivating this community.”

RH: Yes, that is very true. You talked about creating an environment for our Black creatives to connect and foster this sense of community.
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What advice would you give to Black creatives who want to start their own venture, their own business? I know you’ve probably have seen great success and some hiccups along the way. So, what advice would you give?

EE: “I would honestly just say start it. What I’ve noticed, especially around here in this community there’s, there’s a lot of fear in the launch: Whether or not people are going to like what you provide, do people actually see what you’re providing as a solution to their problem. They get worried about the price structure, they get worried about all these things. And all of those things can change.

“TCU has pivoted more times than I care to admit. But if you start, then you have the opportunity to grow and pivot, and you get all of this market research and figure out what the community wants. And if they don’t want your product, you figure out what you can give them or what you can give yourself. We (TCU) started off being a co-working space for women, and I was so proud about that. And then I changed it to a co-working space for all black people. Then I said we’re gonna do a co-working space for all people.

“Then I had two fundamental hard truths. One, you don’t have the capital or the capacity to open up a co-working space right now. And two, you can’t cater to all people because then you’re catering to no people. That helped me, but actually starting and getting into the mud helped me realize my path. I think other creatives and other entrepreneurs, the first thing that they have to do is actually do it.

RH: That’s very reaffirming. I’m certain there are people who will read this and think, ‘Well, I just need to like, take that leap.’ I think the fear factor is really a heavy part of it.

EE: “Right, I have a mentor here and the thing that she told me when I was floating this idea around, was, ‘Well, if you don’t start it, then why are we even having this conversation?’ I told her I just need to wait until I figure out all these things. She said, ‘Well, once you figure that out, it’s too late. And how do you plan on figuring those things out without launching?’ You can’t read minds and you can’t decide the market for yourself. You have to go out there and seeing what the community is buying, and if they’re gonna buy what you’re selling.”

RH: I want to transition a little bit. I know that rooted in your work is DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Can you talk to us just a little bit about why it’s so important to have that component in a company? I think that term is thrown out about, but you’ve actually done the work. So, can you tell us firsthand why that’s important?

EE: “Absolutely. I did a little bit of work at a children’s theatre in Minnesota, and I saw firsthand how the community responds when people actually put forth an effort to engage with minorities, and not just racial minorities, but people who have disabilities, people in the LBGTQ community. What I’ve noticed is that when you celebrate and when you emphasize the differences, you really find connection and closeness.

“I decided that instead of being PC about Black creatives and about finding community and about creating a space. I was just gonna say it out loud, and I was going to boldly declare it because what happens is uncomfortable people will do the research to figure out why somebody is doing this space. The people that you need to come to you are going to gravitate toward you. And then the people that don’t like what you stand for are going to find a way to depart, which are all good things.

“I think so many times people are afraid of conflict, and I don’t think that conflict is necessarily a good thing. I think the culture that we live in and the communities that strive all thrive because of their differences. I just wanted to take an opportunity to highlight those differences and cultivate a community based on the likeness of differences.”

RH: I think that’s something that gets lost when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion: it’s the inclusion of those differences. What’s been some of the pushback that you’ve experienced when it comes to doing DEI work?

EE: “So for pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, pre-Ahmaud Aubrey, the first question I would get is: Why do you need to separate? People would say ‘there are all these different places that you could go to that would welcome you, and that are nice and friendly.’ Or they would say, ‘These people are good people. They’re not racist.’ Or they would say, ‘Why are you being separatist.’

“What I would explain to people is, yes, this company, or this organization, or this group, or this person may be fantastic, and I truly believe that. But there is something intrinsic that happens when a group of like-minded people get together. That is why we have churches, that is why we have organizations and community clubs and golf clubs, and small groups. That’s why companies like Meetup are worth millions and millions because people want to be in the same space as people that they can identify with.

“I would also remind people that not everything is a threat. When you’re in those groups of organizations, it sparks more creativity and more innovation. If I’m in a space where I can relax, and I don’t have the fears that I typically have as a person that doesn’t look like the majority, then I’m free to explore other parts of myself. And other people are free to explore me because of my liberation and my freedom state.

“It’s a chain effect. Other people are empowered even if those who don’t look like me. It’s like being in a concert. There’s a group of people who all know the song and you don’t know the song. But even if you don’t know the song, you feel free and happy because you see other people living free and happy.

“After the pandemic happened, and after all of those tragic incidences — which is not uncommon for people in the Black community; it was just on a grand scale because the world was paused — I think people got it. And if they didn’t get it, they certainly hopped on the bandwagon and pretended that they got it.

“Either way, it works for the community because it offers support, and it offers empathy through a lens that I think otherwise people didn’t see. It reminds people of our humanity. If they get to see a group of people thriving, it reminds them of their own happiness, their own gathering around their grandmother’s table or their country club or their chess club or whatever it is. There’s a likeness to it.”

RH: I wanted to go back to The Culturist Union can you tell us more about what we can expect?

EE: “The first month of our opening will consist of a couple of things. We’ve partnered with the Greater Black Savannah Chamber of Commerce to bring back what was an old tradition about 20 years ago called First Fridays, where people would meet Fridays on River Street and network. So, we’ll be bringing that back. I do believe that we’ll be partnering with Million Cups to bring that back.

“We have our monthly millennial roundtable discussion. So, that will be there. We’re also planning on having live music on Sunday. We’re doing all of these things that would empower you professionally, socially, and spiritually. We do a monthly yoga session, so we’re trying to explore what that looks like in the space. We are also looking for partnerships with Savannah State University and with people who share ethos.”

RH: Why do you love the 912?

EE: “My mom convinced my dad moved to Savannah because she visited once and thought it was beautiful. She couldn’t get it out of her head. So, everywhere we moved, she compared that place to Savannah. When we moved to Savannah, I was in the military and I visited. There was something very serene about being in this space. It felt like home, even though I’d never been here before.

“I don’t know if it’s something about the trees, I don’t know if it’s something about our ancestors, if it’s a spiritual thing, or if it’s just the good environment and weather — I just felt like the possibilities were endless here. I knew that it was going to take a lot of work, but I felt like I could be whoever I wanted to be here. And I felt like there was going to be a community that was going to support me. I tested that theory and it’s proven to be true. So, I love it for all those reasons.”

The Culturist Union is expected to launch later this summer. It will be located at 702 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. For details on the space, follow its Instagram page @theculturistunion. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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