Seeking community through culture, coffee 

The Culturist Union founder shares plans for up-and-coming brick and mortar 

click to enlarge Elbi Elm developed The Culturist Uniion as a private membership hub and digital platform centered on the social, professional, and economic empowerment of professionals, entrepreneurs and creators. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ELBI ELM
Photo courtesy of Elbi Elm
Elbi Elm developed The Culturist Uniion as a private membership hub and digital platform centered on the social, professional, and economic empowerment of professionals, entrepreneurs and creators.
The Culturist Union is a private membership hub and digital platform centered on the social, professional, and economic empowerment of professionals, entrepreneurs and creators.  Originally from Pontiac, Michigan, Elbi Elm is a self-proclaimed military child and veteran of the U.S. Air Force, which she joined at 17-years old, and served 10 years. 

The Culturist Union received a $25,000 grant from American Express for their Amex 100 for 100 program and received funds for SCADpro start-up week of $10,000.

CS: What is The Culturist Union?

Elm: It’s not just a coffee house, and I want to drive that message home because I know people are saying that it’s a coffee house or a coffee shop. If that’s how you wrap your head around it that’s great, but it’s really more than that. It’s really a marketplace for artisans to sell their products – highly curated products. It’s really a space to connect and go to events, and go to social debates, and forums, and trivias, and wind-downs, and then it’s also a place where you can just grab coffee. 

CS: How did your upbringing lead you to establishing a business such as the Culturist Union?

Elm: I used to be really envious of the people who had a hometown and friends that they knew from preschool. Now, I see [my upbringing] as a blessing-in-disguise because since I’ve been able to live in so many different places, I’ve seen how Black culture changes from region-to-region, country-to-county, and we’re not monolithic. We’re multicultural within our culture.

There’s a whole diaspora of who we are, and I think that it’s a beautiful thing. I haven’t seen all of the greatness that is Black but I’ve seen so much of it that I can pull from the North and pull from the South, and pull from England, Germany, Japan, and Cali, and all of these different places and bring it into this 1,600 square foot space. That’s what I love about TCU; it’s not just this one-trick pony. It really is going to be a representation of all the beauty that is Black culture, and it’s not a place where it’s only for us but it is an opportunity to share and express ourselves in a myriad of ways. 

CS: Where did the idea for TCU come from? 

Elm: The Culturist Union came from trying to solve a problem. I’ve traveled and lived in all these places and when I moved to Savannah, and I’m asking, ‘Where is the community? Where do Black artisans gather? Where do they connect? Where do they go?’ There’s not a spot that you can go to on a random Tuesday at 2 p.m. and connect with like-minded people, and that was a problem for me. So, I did what most people do and I left. 

I moved to D.C. and I transferred from Savannah College of Art and Design to Howard and there’s plenty of community in D.C. There’re plenty of places that I could go on a Tuesday at 2 p.m. to connect, and then I moved to Minnesota and it was the same thing. But, eventually, I started thinking about where I wanted to grow roots, and where I wanted to call home, and where I wanted to raise my son and I knew I wanted to be back in the South. My dad lives here, and my mom is close by. But, the thing that was deterring me from moving back was the fact that there was no community. And then it hit me: ‘Well, then, create community.’

We wanted to create this co-working space trying to be like Atlanta and those bigger cities, but then I realized the beautiful thing about Savannah and our unique culture is that we’re not a big city – we are a small town. And, where do small town people want to gather? They want to gather in coffee houses, and they want to connect one-on-one. 

click to enlarge A supporter displays a sign for The Culturist Union at 520 Tavern on Abercorn St. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CULTURIST UNION
Photo courtesy of The Culturist Union
A supporter displays a sign for The Culturist Union at 520 Tavern on Abercorn St.
CS: What is the start-up financial goal? 

Elm:  We [received] $10,000 from SCAD, we crowd-funded for another $10,000, and then American Express gave us $25,000. I don’t think that I would have been able to get this far. I don’t think that out of all of the people American Express could have helped they wouldn’t have helped us if they didn’t believe in this vision. I don’t think SCAD would’ve reached out if they didn’t believe in this vision. We even got a Facebook $5,000 grant a couple of months ago. We work with Buy Local Savannah and the Coastal Georgia Minority Chamber – I don’t think these businesses would pour into us if we weren’t a sure thing. The goal right now is to generate $75,000 more dollars. We have a crowd-funding campaign that’s up on ifundwomen.com. 

CS: Did you apply for the American Express grant? 

Elm: I did not apply for the American Express Grant. It came to me through the efforts and the work that TCU did. During COVID-19, we stopped our crowd-funding campaign efforts to focus on the things that were happening around us. So, you’ve got Ahmaud Arbery down in Brunswick, George Floyd up in Minnesota, the pandemic, all of these social inequities happening around us.

Then, you’ve got local elections taking place at the same time. So, we took a moment and we just paused and we said, ‘How can we stop focusing on what we want and support our community?’ One of the things that we decided to do was team up with the Coastal Georgia Minority Chamber and Dr. Jamal Touré and we created these nonpartisan voter forums.

We also did Black millennial round-table discussions, where we got the best and the brightest of Black millennials together to talk about voting rights, Juneteenth, Black love, and to talk about how they can support their community. We presented that to elected officials as this generation’s wants and needs. We also did digital vendor markets where we were highlighting Black artisans on our social media, and so much more. 

We just did our best to do whatever we could do, and I think that because of all of that effort, somebody somewhere must have reached out to American Express on our behalf. American Express reached out and next thing you know we’re a part of the 100 for 100 Program. 

I feel good about this. The rest of the money is going to come. The support’s going to come.

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