Civil Labs

Oakland, CA

Civil Labs is a social enterprise with a mission to empower young people to make change in their community, and to give them the resources to do so. The Oakland-based business is developing a food community center that provides space for after-school youth programming and commercial kitchens for area food entrepreneurs. Civil Labs believes that the best place for youth entrepreneurship programming is a space that supports and celebrates established entrepreneurs, and does so in a commercially-viable way.


The food community center development will meet a pressing market need for commercial kitchens designed for established artisanal food businesses. For artisanal local food producers, the lack of adequate, dedicated kitchen space is a major bottleneck on growth. While there are many commercial kitchen spaces for new businesses Civil Labs will offer the next step for a growing food enterprise. This type of kitchen-classroom in a productive entrepreneurial environment opens the door for learning, community development, and enhancing entrepreneurship within changing communities.


Co-founders Isaac Buwembo and Graham Gardner developed the idea for Civil Labs several years ago while studying social entrepreneurship and business design at the MBA in Design Strategy program at the California College of the Arts. Their thesis project focused on the adverse impacts of unequal growth and gentrification in the East Bay Area.


They believed that they could use their skills in business and experience design to create a venture that empowers existing community members in Oakland to unlock personal and economic growth within their own neighborhoods.


“We bring unlikely allies together to create shared value,” says Graham. “Our business is based on collaboration, connecting stakeholders to each other. For example, creating mentorship opportunities for young people interested in food entrepreneurship.”


Their partnership enhances their business development. Isaac’s background is in social change, change management, and healthcare. Graham, an Oakland native with a journalism and nonprofit background, worked in Cambodia for several years doing international development work.


Main Street Launch offers customized resources to support each EIR’s business development. Civil Labs receives mentorship with Robert Lattimore, Senior Vice President; access to industry benchmarks utilized by Veteran Launch, an affiliate of Main Street Launch serving U.S. military veterans across California; and data about Central and East Oakland that the Oakland Business Sustainability Program uses to serve Oakland entrepreneurs impacted by the upcoming Bus Rapid Transit construction. In addition, they have connected to a dozen of Main Street Launch’s food clients and have over one hundred more available for them.


In addition to these resources, Main Street Launch offers access to educational opportunities for Entrepreneurs in Residence. “I participated in ULab with Main Street Launch’s client and partner Impact HUB Oakland, and we have been able to incorporate some of that thinking and those concepts into our business development,” says Isaac.


“When we initially reached out to Main Street Launch (OBDC at the time), it was to learn about their work and explore collaboration opportunities,” says Isaac. “When we learned about the Entrepreneur in Residence program, we became interested because it was framed as a way to support our success.”


“Throughout our journey starting this business, we have seen a lot of incremental progress. Sometimes, there are moments where it feels like we jumped on a moving walkway. Joining Main Street Launch’s Entrepreneur in Residence program was one of those bigger leaps for our business development,” says Graham.
Photo courtesy of Ching-Wei Jiang