It’s happy hour on a Tuesday and a large part of my day has been spent trying to get a hold of Kwaku Osei-Bonsu, co-founder of Strange Roots, the subscription box service that delivers products from black-owned businesses to the doors of college students around the country. As I patiently stand in line at coat-check at Ferndale’s Otus Supply, I begin pondering how to fill the hole that’s left without Osei-Bonsu’s story. I’ve had few serendipitous moments in my life. This counts as the most recent.
As I zip myself into my knee-length puffy coat — it’s a snowy December night in metro Detroit — I turn a corner and like a scene out of a dramatic film, Osei-Bonsu is standing at a cocktail table. We’ve never met, but I recognize the 6-foot-something, fashion-forward serial entrepreneur from my research on Strange Roots. I approach his table.
Osei-Bonsu tells me that he is temporarily holding off on new subscribers for the Strange Roots box (explaining the radio silence to my emails), but he assures me that the brand continues to support current subscribers, and promises the business will be up and running at the start of the fall 2018 semester. He agrees to an interview and in lieu of a handshake, I over-excitedly give him a hug — one that I instantly question was appropriate for a business relationship, or with my husband standing just a few feet away.
If anyone else’s business had been placed on a sudden pause, I likely would not be reporting on it during its hiatus, much less throwing my arms around its founder. But it wasn’t a night of a few cocktails or even the coincidence of our encounter that inspired the hug.
Osei-Bonsu, 26, is a teacher at University Preparatory Academy Middle School, who, in his spare time, juggles launching businesses that support and celebrate Detroit’s African-American community. His partner, Lauren T. Bates, 35, balances her entrepreneurial efforts with a full-time role at Quicken Loans. And as a 20-something black entrepreneur, my role duals as the editor of his story and an inspired fan.
This year, Osei-Bonsu and Bates will launch MLN8, the parent company to three businesses dedicated to delivering culinary, entertainment, and educational resources to the African-American community. “The purpose of MLN8 is to bring everything black to the forefront,” Bates says.
Here, the co-founders share their plans.
Though today, the subscription box service is being revived by Osei-Bonsu with Bates as his new business partner, Osei-Bonsu founded the company with a former co-worker in January 2017. But the true originator of the service is Osei-Bonsu’s mother, who would send curated care packages to her then freshman son at Howard University. “She’d include different items from Detroit, books written by black authors, products created by black people,” Osei-Bonsu says. After graduation, he took a page from his mother’s playbook and sent similar care packages to mentees who were in college. “Their friends started asking for packages so I knew I could monetize this. And I did,” he says, crediting his business savviness to the “Detroit grit” in him.
“When Kwaku first told me about Strange Roots, I thought it was a great idea,” says Bates. “It ties into everything that we have planned for MLN8 so I’m really excited to bring it on board.” When the Strange Roots service picks back up in August, the items included will fall under one of four categories from black-owned businesses: books, snacks, toiletries, and what they call a “wild card.”
“The purpose of MLN8 is to bring everything black to the forefront.”
—Lauren T. Bates
Black Metro Eats
In May 2017, Osei-Bonsu and Bates teamed up to spearhead Detroit’s first Black Restaurant Week, the first of many food-related events that will be held under the Black Metro Eats brand, which launched that summer. “When I shared my idea with him, it turned from a walking food tour to Black Restaurant Week,” says Bates.
My conversation with Bates came on the heels of Black Metro Eats’ Put Ya Mama Where Ya Mouth Is! — a cook-off for Detroit-based mothers. “People are always saying ‘My mom is the best cook in the city,’ but that’s just because it’s their mom,” Osei-Bonsu says. “We need proof!”
In addition to proof, or what Osei-Bonsu (and many of the kids these days) often refers to as “receipts,” events like the cooking competition are largely held in an effort to finance other entities.
“The point of the event is to raise money to purchase a shipping container that we plan to re-outfit as a food pantry/kitchen,” Osei-Bonsu says. “You have areas where a large amount of people are unable to pay their electricity bill. Without electricity, you can’t cook and you’re not going grocery shopping because your refrigerator is not on. We want to provide a place where people can not only get food, but can also prepare their meals,” and learn to cook.
Osei-Bonsu and Bates also plan to open a restaurant that will equally benefit its consumers and employees. “We want to create job opportunities for recently released prisoners,” Bates says. “It’s hard for anyone to find a job, but it’s especially difficult for those coming home from prison.” Bates and Osei-Bonsu aim to put the plan for the food pantry into action within the year. The restaurant is part of a five-year plan.
Return of Idlewild (ROI)
The third entity of MLN8 speaks to an element central to black culture: music. From Negro spirituals to church hymns to the jazz age to the early days of hip-hop, African-Americans seek refuge in music — our songs are often our battle cries, our dance moves a birthright. (It’s worth noting that Strange Roots is a riff on the jazz classic “Strange Fruit.”) This summer, Osei-Bonsu and Bates intend to host a weekend-long music festival “of AfroPunk proportions.” The concert series is projected to take place at Idlewild, the northern Michigan city that was once a vacation resort for black professionals during Jim Crow.
“Idlewild used to be this black oasis,” Osei-Bonsu says. “After integration, a lot of black people left to vacation at resorts that they perceived as [more affluent]. We’re trying to make the area somewhat of a spectacle again.” Osei-Bonsu adds that the Return of Idlewild’s acronym is an intentional nod to the financial return on investment. “Idlewild is still ours and we want to make sure that it’s still of value.”