Alumni finds success through NewBo

Starting a business is a daunting task. But, one Kirkwood graduate and her mother have had success through the opportunities at NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids.  

Oja is a Korean restaurant owned by Kwai Butler, a graduate of Kirkwood’s Culinary Arts program and Graphic Communications program, and her mother Leslie Brown.

When Butler was three years old, her family moved to Korea. “As foreigners living in Korea, American food was part of keeping our cultural heritage alive,” said Brown. 

Tacos, Chicago-style pizza and Christmas cookies became ways to share their American roots with their friends and colleagues in Korea. 

Now that the duo have returned to the United States, they find a similar opportunity in Oja. 

“Having grown up in Korea, and had Korean food, it’s nice to be able to bring that here for people to try,” said Brown. 

Oja has a wide menu of Korean foods such as bibimbap, bulgogi wraps and rice pudding, with many more to come. 

Being located at NewBo has offered Butler a chance to be part of unique business opportunities, one of which is the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year Summit. The event is sponsored by Linn Area Credit Union and gives entrepreneurs the chance to workshop their business ideas.   

Matthew McGrane is the Director of Equitable Business Development at NewBo. “The title that I have,” McGrane said, “really gets to the core of what we try to do here at NewBo City Market, which is offer a space at a reasonable cost for people who are taking their first steps into entrepreneurship, but especially working with people who have experienced historical barriers.”

McGrane said the summit is a unique experience. “They’ll be working with some professionals who will conduct workshops with anything from marketing, to finance organization to competition analysis. They’ll have an opportunity to update and refine their presentation materials, they’ll do a little bit of a presentation in front of a jury, and that panel selects a winner,” he said. 

The winner earns a one-year lease in NewBo, and a year of rent paid in full, courtesy of Linn Area Credit Union. 

Oja was one of the businesses that competed in this past year’s summit. “We found out about it kind of at the last minute. Kwai already had a concept in mind for a Korean Bop shop. So we had an idea,” said Brown. 

 The two had to put together a business plan and prepare a pop-up shop with a number of dishes to be served. “We weren’t really prepared about that. We didn’t have really any equipment, we just had to do it in less than a week,” Butler added. 

Hours of research, finding supplies, and preparing dishes all went into making Oja ready for this summit. All the scrambling and hard work lead to Oja being named the champion of the whole event. They have been operating in NewBo since June 1, 2023. 

 McGrane said, “There are not very many non-profit business incubators out there. Most cities of a certain size will have some kind of a public market; you see them everywhere,” McGrane went on to say. “One that’s a non-profit, specifically focused on developing businesses is pretty rare.” 

NewBo’s programs work to break down these barriers. They are extensive, and one of them is the Hatchery. The Hatchery’s objective is to ensure that first time business owners get a fair chance at creating their business. “During that full year, they receive monthly check-ins with me to go over goals, and see how they’re progressing,” McGrane explained. “We have measurables that we track to make sure they’re meeting these goals.”  

Every person has something they are passionate about. Everyone has a unique path that leads them to where they are now. Many passions will end up as a simple hobby. NewBo helps pave the path for these passions to become more than hobbies.

Image courtesy of admin | Kirkwood Communiqué