Transcript – Episode 86

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture– the arts, humanities, and sciences– to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Malia Lazu: Behavior change sometimes can take a long time, and it can feel hard. So if we can wrap it in culture, you find it can stick easier and longer.

Anita Walker: Hello. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Malia Lazu, who is the founder of Urban Labs. And welcome to the program.

Malia Lazu: Thank you for having me. It’s wonderful to be here.

Anita Walker: So, what’s Urban Labs?

Malia Lazu: So, Urban Labs is a boutique diversity and inclusion consulting firm, and we do a lot of strategy around culture, and how companies and institutions can open their doors to people that they want, in a way that shifts culture to not get a lot of the tone-deaf mistakes that you see happen a lot.

Anita Walker: Now, you have a long career of working in communities, community organizing, and really kind of harnessing the power of culture and bringing people together. Talk a little bit about some of your work.

Malia Lazu: Absolutely. I’ve been– I like to say I’m an old-school organizer. I was trained in places like Midwest Academy, and have some great mentors. But I started doing voting work and really trying to bring culture to voting, and started Mass VOTE. We were doing things like Knock Across Boston and things like that, and I think that’s when I really realized that if you want to make change, people have to feel it in their hearts, and people want to have fun. It doesn’t always have to be a slog to feel open to another type of person, <laughs> right? It can actually be a fun thing. And behavior change sometimes can take a long time, and it can feel hard. So if we can wrap it in culture, you find it can stick easier and longer.

Anita Walker: Talk about your accelerator program. Really recognizing that creatives navigating sort of communities in the world, and profit-making, and all the rest of it– that could be a challenge.

Malia Lazu: You know, the accelerator program is one of my– the programs I’m the most proud of. It’s one of the last programs I built, and it really comes out of this need that we saw in the community, which was that creative companies, creative entrepreneurs, didn’t have a space. There wasn’t a chamber for them, if you will. And so we wanted to be able to support these startups and people who didn’t have business in their culture, but did have business in their blood, to help them get to market. So, Accelerate Boston is a six-month curriculum that also then has a year-round wraparound services for our alumni. The six-month curriculum is really aimed at helping people, helping our entrepreneurs understand the basics of business: Why is a P&L important? Because it is. <laughs> Right? And why should you not cry when you have to sit down and fill it out?

Anita Walker: How do you actually get someone not to cry when they do that? <laughs>

Malia Lazu: Well, we say, “No, cry,” but just like we’ll hold your hand, and it’ll get easier every time. It’s funny because the finances classes is where we had the most learning and the most changing. The first finance class we did, we had someone from a large finance company that seemed to make a lot of sense for mainstream bridge-building. And he started, and I could tell that– I was– I wasn’t seeing. I was sitting in the back of the class. But I could tell by his face this wasn’t working. And he sort of stopped, and he said, “Are you okay? Do you need a minute?” And one of our entrepreneurs was crying. And so we stopped. We got into a circle. We talked about the trauma of money. And we talked about that P&Ls are hard, not just because they’re a pain to fill out, this, and what are the actual expenses. You’re not always spending $100 on postage, or whatever it is, right? But that it’s also scary because money is scary, and taking that risk around money. So now we do a Trauma with Money class before we do the finance class. And the finance teacher, right, who comes from this large financial institution has also changed his approach, right? Because he’s like, “Oh, wait, I’m from a place where everyone loves talking about money.” But he’s now in a place where money is not a happy thing, right? Where money comes with stress, and money comes with anxiety, and there is no friends and family to think about when you’re starting a company, for a lot of our entrepreneurs, you know? So, yeah, we’re honest about it. And I think the biggest thing we offer to our artists and to our creatives, which tend to be more empaths, right? They tend to be more sensitive, and sit more, and be the emotional side of personalities, and we want to give them a support. Right? Because they– if they want to make a business of it, then this is what they have to do. And so we lay that out clearly, and then we do hold hands and hug.

Anita Walker: Is there sort of an inherent tension between a creative’s ambitions around their vision, as a creative, to make what they want to make, versus sort of the business demands of what the customer might want you to make?

Malia Lazu: Oh, absolutely. And how do you make what you want to make at a cost that makes it that you could sell it, right? I mean, there’s all these factors that need to impact the creative process, and for a lot of creative people, that’s something that’s difficult, because this is a creation– this did not exist before, and you created it. Right? So there’s this ownership to it. I mean, you also find it hard to just talk about selling it. Right?

Anita Walker: It’s a bit of yourself. I mean, it’s like selling yourself.

Malia Lazu: Exactly. And so– and you’ll see in the different industries different ownership, where chefs sometimes will tend to– you know, chefs are artists, right? I mean, they– if you tell them, “Well, you might not make a profit if you’re doing all of this amazing food, which I know is incredible, but that might not work,” you know, it’s difficult for them to then be like, “Well, let me think of a cheaper option.” Right? I mean, you’re asking them to change their creation. Now, some of our tech, some of our graphic design, you know, there are some industries where they can be a little more natural towards those different iterations, or different changes. But yeah, it’s a difficult thing. And what is something that you created worth? You know, figuring that stuff out. What will you pay? <laughs> And can I talk you up, right? That’s– but it’s those– you know, it is those types of conversations that I think the more our artists and entrepreneurs have, the more comfortable they get in thinking about, “What is my break– you know, what is profitability to me?” Right? And for some people, they’re like, “Wait. This is a hobby.” And we have had a few entrepreneurs who were self-reflective enough, thank goodness, before they went and started a business, to be like, “You know what? I just like making my things and selling them at the fairs, and this and that. When I start thinking about mass distribution and needing to get a kitchen, and needing to– I don’t want to do all that. I just want to make my muffins and sell my muffins.” And that’s also important, because that’s also worthy, right? A hobby that you can sell is a worthy endeavor. It doesn’t make you any less entrepreneurial. It just gives you a better expectation, I think, right, to set your business goals around. This might be your vacation money, <laughs> or whatever it might be. But do it smart. Make sure you’re paying your taxes on it, right? And always have insurance.

Anita Walker: Always have insurance. Famous last words. Talk a little bit about– you talk about community and community organizing, and it feels like for creative entrepreneurs, they’re just like one-person operations. It’s a kind of a lonely endeavor in a lot of ways, isn’t it?

Malia Lazu: It really can be. It really can be, especially in communities that don’t, again, come from a lot of business backgrounds. Or in some cases, you might be the first person to say, “I’m going to set out,” for a lot– and this is, I think, more of a class thing than anything else. But what we see is, not only is it a risk and maybe even seeming like a bad idea to your family, because they don’t understand why you’re leaving healthcare or your pension, all right? Whatever you might have. And it also can be very isolating, because you’re trying to create something, and it’s you and your lab, wherever that is, between you, your heart, and your brain, trying to make something real. We really try to push for people to create teams. A lot of successful businesses are very rarely done with that lone person. The stories are told about people in attics. They’re not alone in attics, and they say that, right? Every Bill Gates has his– what was it, Wolzniak or Wolzi– right? Whatever. You know, like–

Anita Walker: Oh, Wozniak.

Malia Lazu: Wozniak. Right. So it is important to not be alone, because it can be very isolating, and that’s something else that I think our accelerator really provides. This year, what we’re hoping to really try to capture and moving forward is this idea of, how do you measure that? Right? Because what support gives you, what that emotional support through the isolation, through those scary times, we don’t know how to measure that just yet. And I think that that’s something, as we move forward with accelerators and business development programs throughout the country, that we work to really capture. Because it should be a standard, not just how many businesses have been through your accelerator or have gotten to market.

Anita Walker: Do you have one or two favorite success stories?

Malia Lazu: I do. I have a lot, because I love them all equally. But there’s a couple of things that– there’s a couple of businesses that touch– you know, that just touch my heart. So, the first one is Trillfit, and they have a studio in Mission Hill, on Tremont, and they are a boutique fitness company for urban millennials. You can tell by the name “Trillfit” it’s about being– you know, having fun, cutting up, dancing, having a good time. She’s been growing in this path. She did a full schedule last year at another studio, and within that year has been able to set herself up to open a studio in Mission Hill. So there’s a black woman-owned exercise studio in Mission Hill that folks can check out. And I think it just– what I love about her story was that she came in wanting to do this, because she couldn’t figure out a comfortable way to work out. And it wasn’t that she couldn’t afford boutique fitness. She could. But when she would go, she would be one of the only women of color. They would be listening to music that she didn’t want to listen to. She would sort of stand in the back and just get through it and leave. And she really wanted to create a space of a sisterhood. And when you go to a Trillfit class, it’s not just black and Latino, you know? It’s a real mix of women coming together. And men do come, but I don’t want to– it’s women. It’s a sisterhood. And then they do this larger event called Brunch and Burn, where 200 people come and work out together. And men do come to that, and are able to enjoy the space’s sisterhood, and we love holding space for men as well. But it’s just a great example. It’s got me working out, even though it’s not my generation. It’s a generation younger than me. But they– you know, these women remind me of me, you know, wanting to just have a good time with a workout, and going to– and Jazzercise was what was offered. And I don’t say that in a bad way. My mother owns a Jazzercise center in New Jersey, so… <laughs>

Anita Walker: So, just to take this example: the profit and loss statement and managing the books. But a fitness center– there must have been lots of other hidden mountains to climb to get the doors open.

Malia Lazu: The best story that I love, that Heather tells publicly, so I’m not spilling any of her tea, was when we were getting ready to open the studio, we went– or we saw– you know, we were looking at different spaces, and she was like, “Malia, will you come?” We were going to be bringing in a lot of TA [ph?] to support her, and everything. And I said, “Of course.” And we’re looking at the space, and we’re– you know, we’re liking it, and like, “Okay. I think we’re going to do it.” And the developer is like, “Great. Do you have plans?” And Heather’s like, “Oh, I got plans!” Like, “This is gonna be dope.” And neither of us realized he was talking about plans. He was talking about actual blueprints of what the floor was. And so when he said that, Heather was like– she called me. She was like, “He means plans, like blueprint.” I was like, “Oh, my God, of course!” Like, of course he does. But we were just so excited about this space and seeing it that– you know, and they have to be authorized, right? It can’t just be like, “I want the mirror here. Draw that.” You know, you have to have official people doing it, and all of this stuff. And so it’s an example of a learning experience. And the reason why we bring our alumni back together is because they tell these stories to each other, and that helps folks learn, and it really helps bring a centering in a business culture creation, I guess I would say. But yeah. No, there have been some things. You know, you– I mean, we had a business that was going to be baby food… <laughs> until we learned what it takes to make baby food. Because no one’s going to be responsible for killing babies, so in order to make your baby food, you have to have a lot– go through a lot of regulation. Rightly so, right? I’m not– but when you’re trying to start a business, those costs become prohibitive. <laughs> So I’ve learned things like that, like what it takes to move live cattle across the country. I mean, you learn a lot of– especially with creative businesses, because we have this one great business that’s in the formation right now that is a co-op artists’ hotel. So the artists will own the hotel. They’ll provide all the artistry, but also programming at the hotel, and it’s– you know, and it’s going to be this new type of economic model, right, of a co-op hotel. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Anita Walker: Wow. One more story. Tell us one more success story.

Malia Lazu: <laughs> Okay, let me think. No, you know, one of the success stories that I don’t talk about a lot, so I’ll talk about with, this is– she’s from– she was our first class, so this was 2012 that we’re talking about, right? She is this woman. She’s a jewelry designer, really just excited about not only designing jewelry, but providing a platform. She’s from Cambridge, I think, or Medford– you know, from the community– and she decided she was going to open a jewelry store. And she decided– we were looking at everywhere, and she decided that Rockport was actually a really good place for her to open this jewelry store. And that comes with a lot of– right? It’s like, you’re moving it out of the community. But for her price point for the type of jewelry she was making, Rockport was– and the type of jewelry she’d be curating was absolutely a good– you know, she couldn’t– you know, Martha’s Vineyard, maybe, would be a good place, right? The Cape. But these are the types of places that would be good for her consumer base. So she now has three stores in Rockport. It’s called Wicked Peacock, so everyone go. And here was this young woman who just wanted to figure out– and she thought that she was going to have an online business, and that that’s what she was going to build, and she now has three stores. So check her out, as well. But yeah. No, we’re a great little ecosystem chugging away over here.

Anita Walker: And much needed. And you make it fun. <laughs> That’s the most important part.

Malia Lazu: Please! If we’re going to do it. <laughs>

Anita Walker: Malia Lazu, founder of the Urban Labs. Another Creative Mind Out Loud.

Malia Lazu: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

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