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Arkansas: There’s Something in the Water

Arkansas entrepreneur Omar Kasim stands inside Juice Palm in Fayetteville

By Omar Kasim | Photography by Meredith Mashburn, Nataly Lorenzo and Raleigh Woods

The first time I visited Fayetteville was my orientation day in May of 2012. Although I was aware of the national ranking of Walton College’s exceptional business school, I never seriously considered attending the University of Arkansas. I only applied as a fallback in the event I didn’t get accepted into my dream school, the University of Texas at Austin. When I received my acceptance letter to UT, I was in tears. The decision seemed simple: accept the offer, head to Austin and stick to the plan. Yet something in me said Austin would be the wrong choice. Listening to my gut, I decided to forego my offer to UT and accept my scholarship to the U of A in April of 2012. A month later, I found myself headed to Fayetteville, confused as to why I decided to attend a school I had never even toured. The moment I stepped foot in the Walton College courtyard, however, serendipity silenced any doubt that lingered in my mind. It was then that I realized that this special place, Northwest Arkansas, would be where I would lay the foundation for the rest of my life to be built.

Omar Kasim of Juice Palm stands with a pineapple on his head in front of a yellow background

Fayetteville’s Omar Kasim inside his latest venture, Juice Palm, an all-organic juice bar.

USING THE PAST TO BET ON THE FUTURE

Upon moving to Fayetteville, it doesn’t take long to learn about Arkansas’ history of producing some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. Walton, Tyson, Dillard and Hunt are all champions to come out of the Natural State and have been essential to the growth trajectory we have been witnessing. “Is there something in the water here that’s breeding these successful people?” I’d ask myself. Possibly. After all, Mountain Valley Water has been awarded “Best Tasting Water” multiple times and is sourced from the Ouachita Mountains right here in the state.

The history combined with the premier business program at the University of Arkansas is what drew me to this area. It screamed opportunity. And although I was not immediately sure of what I was going to be doing in the future, I knew getting plugged into the area would pay its dividends.

Another observation I found interesting about the state is the number of transplant residents there are due to 400 of the Fortune 500 companies having a presence in Northwest Arkansas and the University of Arkansas — it’s said that over 60 percent of incoming students are coming from Texas. When I was synthesizing my business plan for a restaurant in Fayetteville, my strategy was to capitalize on that. Here are large groups of people who are used to more eclectic food options and higher prices and now live in a state that boasts considerably lower cost of living numbers.

Very similar to Sam Walton’s strategy of becoming a big fish in smaller ponds, I sought to bring concepts that were working in bigger markets to Arkansas, where bigger companies probably weren’t paying too much attention. Yellow Rocket Concepts, the parent company of brands like ZaZa, Big Orange, Local Lime and more, has demonstrated that the same is true in Central Arkansas: Arkansans are starved for progressive restaurants. So, when a new one pops up, it gets support. In summary, the state’s history of success stories, growth and low costs makes it an attractive place for an entrepreneur.

Two girls holding juice bottles and smiling

Lauren James’ Lauren Stokes and former Miss Arkansas Helen Strickland are proud supporters of entrepreneurs in the Natural State.

SO WHY ISN’T ARKANSAS ON THE REST OF THE NATION’S RADAR?

It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “What’s there to do there?” as a reply when I tell Californians or New Yorkers that I live in Arkansas. Even more common is their surprise when I tell them about all the fascinating things that are happening in the state. That, to me, is a problem. We are getting recognition on various lists and publications, but we are not being recognized. If we want to bring more talent and business to Arkansas, we must tell the world why Arkansas is worth investing in. This includes within our own state as well.

Talent has never been an issue: We have a lot of it that is homegrown, like Taylor Wilson, who built a nuclear reactor at the age of 14, or that comes here for our universities. We’re having a hard time convincing them to stick around, though. Having attended the Walton College of Business, I witnessed this firsthand. Over the course of their time here, students develop a false perception that if they are not interested in agriculture or consumer packaged goods that there is no benefit in staying after graduation. Not only is this not true, it is detrimental to our growth. I want to see more viral videos, more spotlights, more acknowledgment of awesome growing businesses like PicaSolar or CaseStack to demonstrate that opportunity here extends beyond the industries we are historically are known for.

Additionally, we need venture catalysts. No, not venture capitalists; there is plenty of money around for those raising capital who deserve it. Venture catalysts are the people working to elevate small businesses and catalyze their growth, and they need help. I’m happy to see the progress we’ve made in this department. From the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in Little Rock to Startup Junkie in Fayetteville, we need to continue to build a startup ecosystem across the state.

Moving forward, I feel great about planting my roots here in Arkansas. The people are friendly, the history is rich and the water is tasty. The culture is not cutthroat or dog-eat-dog; it’s welcoming, supportive and uplifting. Others want to see me succeed here, and that feeling is invaluable to a young entrepreneur. Arkansas is a diamond in the rough with opportunity waiting to be taken, refined and utilized. We’ve got the accolades, we’ve got the talent and we have the trajectory. I am excited about my future here in this state and cannot wait until the time comes that another city begins to be recognized as “The Next Fayetteville” in U.S. News & World Report and The Washington Post.

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