Business incubators most often serve as a catalyst to help start-ups in technology, bio-tech, cybersecurity and other lucrative fields gain a foothold in competitive markets. There’s a new business incubator in Montgomery County, on Elkins Street in downtown Wheaton, that’s supporting an entirely different clientele. FAs Marketplace aims to help independent artists and other creatives begin, maintain and grow their arts businesses.
The brainchild of Fata Antoinette Togba-Mensah, FAsMarketplace is a third space, where people with varying interests, ages, economic and cultural backgrounds can find each other, and build a community of creatives and arts entrepreneurs. In this contemporary marketplace, artists and makers, creatives and arts lovers can find common ground through a variety of artistic and business offerings.
At the marketplace, visitors can find mini and pop-up shops where artists and crafters sell their wares, studios and classrooms for patrons – children and adults – who want to learn to sew, knit, draw and paint. The 6,000-square-foot center, just a block off University Boulevard, also contains a performance space for open mic nights, poetry slams, film screenings and other public and private events. And there are rooms for afterschool classes and tutoring sessions, plus co-working spaces for those who work for themselves or work at home.
Togba-Mensah, along with her husband James Mensah, who owns a Wheaton-based insurance business, hope to to expand the class offerings in 2020, adding Lego robotics and children’s machine-based sewing classes, for example. A coffee shop and comfortable reception area, where neighbors can stop in to chat, borrow a book from the small lending library and take in the creative atmosphere, will also be available.
Although Togba-Mensah has a master’s degree in international training and education and taught middle school language arts in North Carolina and Prince George’s County, sewing has always been her passion. “I’ve been sewing almost my entire life,” Togba-Mensah said, “since before kindergarten. I remember when I graduated from kindergarten, I got my first sewing machine. It was a kid’s Singer machine … and I made a lot of doll clothes [for] Barbie and an imitation Cabbage Patch Doll.”
Born and raised in Liberia, her mother and grandmother – both seamstresses – were her first teachers, she recalled. “My mom had a business as a dressmaker and my grandmother did as well. My grandmother made quilts to sell. So, growing up, I got to see my grandmother make these beautiful quilts as well.”
“My grandmother had this old-fashioned quilting stand that was wood, a pretty big frame that she used to stretch [the quilt],” Togba-Mensah continued. “She kept it in her back hallway where I’d see her turning that thing and tightening it. I saw a lot of the hard work she put into making these things.”
Togba-Mensah’s family ended up in the United States in early 1990, just after civil war broke out in Liberia. “My father worked for the government and he was killed during the war, so we had to literally sneak out of the country … because we were tied to the government. I was 12 when we came here as refugees.” She arrived in the region to attend graduate school at American University. These days, the Mensahs and their three children — two girls, 11 and 8, and a 3-year-old boy — live in Germantown.
“After I had my first child in 2008, I stepped out of the classroom and I went through this phase where I was trying to decide how to use these talents and my education to rediscover myself,” she said. She did a stint consulting with international organizations developing educational programs and curriculums, but sewing and creating remained her true passions. She began making soft toys for her own children, writing children’s stories and books, and realized she there was an audience out there interested in children’s products made locally with love and care.
“It took years to develop the concept for FAsMarketplace,” Togba-Mensah said one afternoon in what serves as a little coffee shop near the marketplace entrance. “It brings all of these things that I love together: I get to create my toys, which I love to play with, write my books, do the designs or the illustrations for the books, and I get to incorporate my kids in everything.” Indeed, her girls were behind the reception desk one afternoon, ready to help any walk-ins because, aside from running a start-up and creating her own products, Togba-Mensah homeschools her girls.
Clothing designer Anastasia Baah, who designs contemporary fashions with African fabrics, found the marketplace a perfect way to grow her business: “The space is affordable, and it’s a good venture … the locals are finding out about us and coming in. We’re a new business in the community and people are starting to discover us and like it.”
Baah, who was born in Ghana, imports her vibrantly colored and patterned fabrics from there. For more than a decade, she worked in financial management for the Montgomery County government, before just recently concentrating full-time on her clothing line. “FAsMarketplace is a great place,” she said. “We share ideas and we come together and create events. If I was on my own in my house, I wouldn’t have a way to share ideas … being at the Marketplace encourages us.”
It’s also a boon for the Wheaton Urban District. “Wheaton is going through a change,” said Luisa Montero-Diaz, mid county regional service director, who works as the community’s liaison to the county executive and county council.
Montero-Diaz calls FAsMarketplace unique among the county’s arts and economic engines. “Because it is a combination, it brings so many things together. It’s a maker space with different artisans and artists who come there to have a place to produce, exhibit and sell their work,” she said. “Then you also have the education piece of it: the afterschool program and the summer programs for elementary school children that focus on arts. And then you have the venue, which has been used for an incredible diversity of events and performances that the community can rent out or partner with FAs to put on something.”
“Everybody tells me that when they walk through the door, they say they feel like they need to create something,” Togba-Mensah said. “When you come here expect to be inspired.”
FAsMarketplace is located at 11319 Elkin St., Wheaton. For information, call 240-558-3263 or visit www.fasmarketplace.com. Upcoming events include Fall Fest, Oct. 26, noon-6 p.m. This family friendly event includes activities for children, and everyone is encouraged to dress like a favorite superhero. Events include craft vendors, arts and crafts activities, performances and a costume fashion show.