In the heart of Lansing, small, diverse businesses find their footing

Print More

Rihab Musa and her family moved to Egypt when she was six years old, fleeing from a war in her home country of Sudan. A year later, in February 2000, they moved to the United States, and have been living in Greater Lansing ever since.

“I guess when they asked my dad, ‘Where do you want to go?’ –– like they showed him the map, he just pointed to a place full of water,” she said.

Musa attended grade school, high school and college in the U.S. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s in psychology and has a private practice in psychotherapy.

In trying to assimilate with American culture, Musa said she was “trying to forget where I came from.” When in school, she said she used to get bullied because of her skin tone and accent, causing her to further distance herself from her home culture.

“I didn’t like where I came from; I didn’t like who I was because of where I came from,” she said. “It was definitely a struggle until I realized why am I trying to deny my self; if I deny my self then I wouldn’t know who I am.”

Musa went back to Sudan in 2008 and again in 2021. Both times, she said, she “fell in love with everything that was there.” During her visit in 2021, she felt that this aspect of African culture and beauty was “something that America should see.”

“I wanted to showcase the beauty because this is my identity, and the beauty and the art and the fashion that comes from it, and also embracing my identity of being Nubian,” she said. (Nubian people are an ethnic group indigenous to what used to be the Nile Valley, now northern Sudan and southern Egypt.)

In 2022, Musa opened her store, Nubian Jewelry, in Middle Village, a business incubator program located in downtown Lansing.

Middle Village was created to address the high vacancy rate in downtown Lansing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We decided to build a retail accelerator program that allowed entrepreneurs to receive a year’s worth of business education, below-market startup cost and a lot of community support, so that, upon graduation, they can go on and open their own brick and mortars,” Reinhardt said, “with a particular focus on women and BIPOC-owned businesses.”

Musa was part of the 2022 cohort and now has her own brick-and-mortar store located near Middle Village.

Reinhardt said in about 2,500 sq. ft. of Middle Village space, there are six “micro storefronts.” Businessowners take monthly classes and weekly financial classes to learn how to grow and succeed.

Liz Kruger and Byron Pepper, who goes by Sarge, own one of these storefronts in the current cohort: Honey Bun Bakery.

Kruger said she has been baking “pretty much since I was able to have the cognitive ability to hold things.” She dropped out of Lansing Community College after one semester –– the same year LCC dropped their culinary program, Kruger said. She did some food service jobs, before working a call center job at Jackson National.

Sarge was born in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and has lived in Texas, Colorado, England and Pennsylvania. He lived in Pennsylvania for eight years before moving back to Michigan after he had lost his job, apartment and car.

“I moved up and within five years, I was on my way to a degree; I had an apartment and a car and a good job, and I met this lovely one here,” Sarge said.

“I’m a gremlin, don’t lie,” Kruger interjected.

“We had pancakes for our first date, and we talked about our third favorite dinosaur and how we cope with anger and intense emotions,” Sarge continued. “We’ve been two peas in a pod pretty much ever since.”

Kruger and Sarge started small, at markets, and through their “genuineness on both presentation of our business and who we are, and the quality of our product,” they slowly started to have a growing customer base.

When the couple met Reinhardt, she became invested and interested in their business ambitions and were talking about it with Rousseau, she became highly invested in the idea.

“We were talking about our dream of opening up a board game café. And she’s like, ‘Oh my God, that’s great,’” Sarge said. “She became really enraptured with the idea and has done so much for us in the past, I would say, two years, including getting us involved in this business incubator program.”

Reinhardt said that all businesses that have been a part of the incubator program are still in business and most of them have their own brick-and-mortar store. Among them is the bookstore A Novel Concept, which was one of the inaugural members of Middle Village in 2021.

Elise Jajuga had always been interested in books and reading, and has wanted nothing more than to be “surrounded by books.”

“Kids were always talking about music and stuff like that,” Jajuga said. “I always felt so out of touch because I was like, ‘Wait, I have these cool, like, books.’”

Jajuga has worked in various publishing houses from California to Naperville, Ill., to Lansing.

She also worked for the Michigan State University Press, and now works at the MSU Libraries. She met Christine Peffer, the co-owner of A Novel Concept through intramural kickball. The pair realized that they shared the same passion and interest for books and participated in various book clubs.

One day, on a hike, Peffer brought up the idea of owning a bookstore to Jajuga, who was immediately interested.

“When I was in Chicago, I went to this bookstore that was this cool wine and bookstore place and Michigan didn’t seem to have any of those yet –– we were kind of behind like the trend train,” she said. “So I was like, oh man, it would be so cool if I could just start this bookstore with wine and all these other accoutrements.”

The pair started doing pop-ups when Reinhardt reached out to them about the possibility of being a member at Middle Village. They accepted and were among the first cohort of businesses at Middle Village.

Reinhardt said that each cohort of businesses bonds and connects with each other and the community they have been able to build has been good.

“Our very first cohort is very much involved in the current Middle Village; they make themselves available to any Middle Villager,” Reinhardt said. “It’s a really tight knit community that has learned to share information as opposed to hoard it a competition-type way.”

Mary Toshach is a Michigander by birth. Her family has lived in Michigan since before statehood, Toshach said. Her background is in museums, having previously worked at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and later, at the Michigan History Center. She retired shortly after leaving Michigan History Center.

However, she still “always wanted my own store.” So when the opportunity came in at Middle Village, she applied and was accepted.

Her store, Ornamaloo, sells her hand-made chain mail jewelry and vintage pottery. She also currently sells a collection of artifacts from Mesoamerica and South America.

Toshach finds the communal aspect of Middle Village to be one of the bigger perks of having her business there.

“If you have to run to the bank and you get a visitor, then they can take care of them, if necessary,” Toshach said. “I just took a trip to Oaxaca with my daughter, and they helped run the store while I was gone.”

Beeka Monique had been working in the medical field for about 22 years, but always had a passion for fashion design and merchandising. She finds fashion to be a form of art and self-expression. She started her business around two years ago.

“I decided once my kids were grown, that it was time for me to just live my dream,” Monique said.

Monique opened CocoBella, a fashion boutique store. She said she finds a boutique to be more intimate and “personable.”

“One of the things about having my boutique is that I want to be able to encourage, empower and inspire women through fashion,” Monique said. “There’s always some reason for us to shop, and I think that when women have a place where it’s almost a safe haven to not only to shop, but just to, to vent and to have a good place where they can hang out with their girlfriends –– that’s the type of environment that I believe that Coco Bella has when I have customers come in.”

Reinhardt emphasized the importance of small businesses –– and especially diverse businesses –– being present in city downtowns.

“Small business is the backbone of the economy,” she said. “Focusing on diverse businesses is extremely important, particularly since we are in the capital city. We want everybody across the state of Michigan to be able to come to downtown Lansing and see themselves here when they visit the capital or think about their state capital.”

Comments are closed.