Inside the Ward 8 Arts & Culture Incubator “Innovate 8”

By Guest Author on December 15, 2015


By Tendani Mpulubusi El

Editor’s Note: Article and all images reproduced by kind permission of the Ward 8 Arts and Culture Council.  For more information about the organization visit

With the Groundbreaking of the Gateway DC Pavilion in 2013 spearheading the development of the St. Elizabeth’s East Campus that would build a multi-million dollar mixed use development in Congress Heights featuring an innovation hub was clear, but how that development would benefit the residents of the Neighborhood and Ward 8 at large was not to residents. Communities like Ward 8 who haven’t seen economic investment for generations often fear that the sudden aggressive economic development interests and revitalization efforts now taking place aren’t for aimed to benefit them, and local history provides substantial evidence to validate that belief.

Ward 8 based artist and entrepreneur Tendani Mpulubusi El believed that waiting on local government to facilitate community benefits for such a major project wasn’t acceptable or realistic, but with proper planning and positioning lead by the community itself, revitalization didn’t have to mean displacement. As a matter of fact, it could very well mean victory for a long time disadvantaged community. He teamed up with John Whitman, a full time professor and adjunct teacher at institutions such as Harvard, Georgetown and American Universities, to create a plan that would prepare Ward 8 residents to benefit from economic investment coming to the Ward.

One of the first steps was engaging DC based creative entrepreneurs about there business interests. At the time, the Ward 8 Arts Arts & Culture Council was just being established and it’s founder Tendani immediately directed the organizations focus to business incubation in light of statistics from the SBA the showed non minority owned businesses typically hire 90% non minorities and 10% minorities and minority owned businesses typically hire 60% minorities and 40% non minorities. To address employment issues in Ward 8, and connect residents East of the River to sustainable economic opportunity, the residents have to start businesses and develop specialized skills that lend themselves to trending business sectors.

After spending hours upon hours, and days upon days working with Whitman and local creatives that plan became Innovate 8. It includes letters of interest from Ward 8 creative entrepreneurs, a database of existing and aspiring entrepreneurs, integrates the business incubation model with private sector market trends and DC government interests, and has a goal of incubating 8 creative enterprises a year in Ward 8. Oh and yes, it can be done, shall be done.

Above is a slide from the Innovate 8 plan. Innovate 8 includes a very detailed 50 page business plan and 19 page power point. The plan is full of graphic logic models that make sense.

The above slide give a glimpse into making the incubator work for its entrepreneurs and be sustainable.

The slide above shows how the program is considerate of the reality of many Ward 8 residents and is culturally competent.

“Besides being biased to creative enterprise because I am a creative entrepreneur, I seriously believe creative enterprise and specialized workforce training is a vital part of the answer to unemployment and economic struggle in Ward 8. Creative industry is more performance and portfolio based than anything. You can enter the industry with a masters degree in whatever field but if you don’t perform, someone with a high school diploma and a smokin’ hot portfolio can excel beyond you because they can out perform you. I’m not saying creative industry is free from forms of institutional discrimination but it could provide a new start for people in a community desperately needing one,” said Innovate 8’s creator Tendani, who has been self employed in creative industry since 2007.

“We have social and economic justice issues to work out East of the River. We have the most returning citizens in Ward 8. We need to start thinking outside of the box.”

Meet the Creatives

Meet Ward 8 resident and creative entrepreneur Tony (pictured above), AKA Ozy Mandais, owner of the Maindais Exhange. He is a graphic and fashion designer, videographer and film editor. He discovered Innovate 8 around the time he and his wife was expecting a new child and he had to convert his home studio/office back into a bedroom. He needed the right environment for his work and became the first to join the Innovate 8 pilot.

Meet Evelyn Brooks, a Virgina resident who is interested in bring her business operations to DC and was referred to Innovate 8 by the DC Fashion Incubator. Like many home based creatives with a family, Evelyn needed to get out of her home and produce in an environment where she could focus on her craft without distraction and network with other creatives.

Her company Evelyn Brooks Designs was recently featured in the USA TODAY publication Hispanic Living magazine in the article “The Beauty of the Seed”, in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. All of Evelyn’s jewelry use red seeds from her native country Peru, so technically her products are at least 75% organic. Evelyn Brooks Designs is sold at over 80 boutiques across the United States.


Meet Ward 8 painter, interior decorator, designer and creative entrepreneur Domonic Mobly (pictured above center). Her business Exploiting Personalities is a sustainable enterprise that keeps her very busy.

She uses her skilled hands to customize wine glasses, mugs and other gifts for shoppers at Nordstrom on the weekends. She has decorated the homes of celebrities including Washington Wizards star John Wall. She is often in need of space to create multiple products for clients, and need to deliver on time.

Meet Ward 8 resident Paulette Williams (pictured above), specializing in event decor, interior decor, and she is also a fashion designer and seamstress retired from the Library of Congress. She is responsible for stunning gowns paraded at proms through the city, across and happens to be the Mother of the very talented Dominique Mosley.

As you can see from the pics above she has had to sacrifice her beautifully decorated living and dining area to accommodate numerous creative production runs. The average person stigmatized about stereo typical Ward 8 would never  think all this was going on in in a far southeast town home, but trust and believe this is one of numerous creative boiling pots we have discovered on our journey. She was of the first participant to contribute equipment to the incubator by bringing two sewing machines for use by others and she is helping us learn how to support home based business out growing out of the home.

Meet Michael Brown of Jev Michaels Photography (pictured Above), a photography company he started to assist businesses and models enhance and promote their brand by capturing the right images. Mike left the DMV area for a few years and recently returned to DC with focus and a community spirit. He regular volunteers at W8ACC functions and lends his time training those aspiring to be professional photographers.

Meet Adriana Mendoza (pictured above), a landscape architect, jewelry and graphic designer. Her jewelry and design business SO ME expresses her passion for creative making and fashion.

Adriana designs public space with the intention of engaging people in a meaningful and memorable way. She has a diverse portfolio ranging from residential projects to skate board parks. Pictured above are pics from one of her recently completed a projects were she designed a plaza in front of Hornbake Library at the University of Maryland featuring an non passive statue of Frederick Douglass that invokes emotion upon its audience.

Meet East of the River resident, musician and producer “Josh on Bass”. Although Josh is well known as the bass guitar player with the Go Go Rock Band “Black Alley, his interest in media arts has landed him in the incubator spending time to perfect his craft, get inspiration and express his creative genius. He is working on completing some savvy innovative projects that cannot yet be disclosed.

Meet Charles Howell, a DC Resident and technically sophisticated IT security engineer with demonstrated success in penetration testing various technologies.  As a federal government contractor he was able to explain complex concepts to non-technically savvy personnel so we believe he could easily start a company based in Ward 8 and run a cyber security workforce training program hiring Ward 8 residents. With the development of homeland security in Congress Heights at the St. Elizabeth’s West Campus and an innovation hub at the East Campus the whole idea makes way too much sense.

Early Efforts
The Innovate 8 plan clearly provides a commendable service to DC residents, particularly those who have inhabited the city’s most disenfranchised corridors for decades, and also helps the city meet some of their own strategic goals.

The Innovate 8 plan was put before the Gray administration who demonstrated interest but was transitioning out by the time serious negotiations began.

Not too long after the administration change, W8ACC lost mentor and advocate Marion Barry who documented his support, and was putting pressure on the city to support of the plan.

Early in 2015 the plan was pitched to DCCAH for the DC Innovates grant. Out of 157, Innovate 8 was one of 37 proposals that made it to the final round of the DC Innovates grant funding opportunity. The project wasn’t supported by DC Innovates funds, regardless of the documented feedback reported from the DCCAH grant panel that praised how great the proposal was. As they say in southeast, that’s “a whole other conversation” right there lol.

W8ACC’s aim was to get public support and leverage that for private support. It made sense but didn’t happen at the time… but still they had to make it happen.

Sharing is Caring
After W8ACC Founder Tendani El wrapped up the successful creative pop up venture “Tendani Art Place”, a stand out dynamic component of the Lumen8 Anacostia project sponsored by an Art Place America grant in 2012, he set up his studio on the Southwest Waterfront at the Matthew Henson Conservation Center. There he produced numerous public and private works of art over the years and eventually decided to invite other creatives in the approximately 4,000 sq foot facility to begin the Innovate 8 pilot regardless of cash in hand.


“Our administrative office is at the United Black Fund on MLK Ave SE (shout out to UBF), and our legal address is in Ward 8 of course, but we couldn’t find any space to launch the pilot or facilitate any regular programming so were on the SW Waterfront making it happen (shout out to our host Earth Conservation Corps), and there are no complaints about walking out the backdoor and kayaking down the Anacostia river at will lol.

Although Innovate 8 has proven to be inclusive of all serious entreprenuers who want to start a creative business in Ward 8 or even DC in general, this was intended for Ward 8 so we didn’t expect to pilot in Ward 6,” says Tendani. He adds, “Thankfully, it’s right across the ‘South Cap’ bridge, and it’s still a great situation for Ward 8 residents. You can drive over here in less than 5 minutes and youth in our media arts program easily walk over here from MLK avenue so the purpose and the people are still being served.”

The Network
One of the benefits of Innovate 8 is the opportunity to collaborate with other business and professionals that provide complimentary services and skill sets. In the picture below you see Jev Michaels photography producing a product shoot for Evelyn Brooks Designs. Evelyn gets to design her jewelry then walk less then 30 feet from her work space for a product shoot. Sweet deal.

Keep On Pushin’
Since the Innovate 8 pilot has been activated it has served over 10 businesses with production space, access to specialized equipment and supplies, technical assistance, business networking opportunities and enhanced exposure. Over 50 entrepreneurs have benefited from Innovate 8.

(Pictured above) Councilmember Laruby May visits the incubator site.

Many of the city’s leaders in this current administration have received a visit from the W8ACC about supporting Innovate 8 or has visited the site in person. Although W8ACC will continue to demand the city to step up and support their program that proves to help the city meet it’s own business and workforce development goals, they have been working the private sector and that is coming along nicely.

The Difference
Finally its important to distinguish the difference between a business incubator and a co-working facility. A co working facility typically provides space for businesses to operate at a desk or two, and access to printers and meeting rooms. They usually charge between 50-90% of the market rate for rent.

An incubator provides facilities, specialized equipment, technical assistance, access to industry experts and other wrap around service that nurture a the development of a business as a mother would a child. Innovate 8 is designed for business incubation.

Stay tuned… there’s so much more to share:)