Growing up, Rob Jackson always got into trouble for leaving the lights on. Now he’s the founder & CEO of Ujamaa Lighting, a company making products that help others create memorable moments, while lowering their power bill.
Many of Rob Jackson’s early life memories center around his late mother, Shirley. Growing up in Magnolia, a small town of just over 11,000 in southwestern Arkansas, he remembers the dominoes tournaments she hosted at home, and family and friends gathering for her Sunday dinners. But what Rob remembers most is his mom’s frugality, which included an ability to sniff out what she considered “excessive energy consumption.” Shirley was a factory worker and single parent who raised Rob, his brother, and a cousin on a $15,000-a-year salary. Rob recalls how his mom took her electricity very seriously:
Let my mama tell it, her “light” bill was the bill that was going to get us kicked out the house. If I had the stove left too high, it was going to run her light bill up. If I left the door open, it’s running her light bill up. I always got in trouble for leaving the lights on. One thing my mom used to always say was, “If you don’t have any light bill money, then don’t be turning on all my lights.” So, when I decided to do a business, I said, “You know what? If I’m going to do a business, I want to do something that everybody needs. I want to do something that reminds me of my childhood. I’m going to do lights.”
In June 2019, Rob founded Ujamaa Lighting, an Austin, Texas-based company that specializes in residential, commercial, and industrial LED lighting solutions. Ujamaa shares a name with one of the principles of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration of African American culture. The word Ujamaa is Swahili for “extended family” and is based on the idea of “cooperative economics.”
“‘Ujamaa’ means a community is better once it bands together,” he explains. “We’re not just selling light bulbs; we’re selling life experiences.”
If there’s one thing Rob learned from his mom who passed away in 2012, it’s the ability to be thrifty. And he wants the same thing for his customers. His company’s mission is simple: to design and manufacture long-lasting, energy-efficient, affordable lighting solutions so that people can focus less on the light bill and more on what matters most.
A bright idea
Rob studied computer science at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and has worked as an IT project/program manager for almost two decades. But he couldn’t shake his desire to become an entrepreneur. Following advice from a mentor, he decided to surround himself with other entrepreneurs, people who were doing what he wanted to do. And that became a turning point.
“I started going to a lot of business conventions and networking, which is very hard for me because I’m a very introverted person,” he says.
In 2017, Rob attended a convention in Atlanta organized by We Buy Black, an e-marketplace and business development and resource center for Black businesses. It was there that Rob met another entrepreneur who would prove invaluable, Malik, the co-founder of a successful laundry detergent company. As soon as Rob met Malik, he knew he wanted to learn everything he could from the seasoned businessman. But it wasn’t going to come easy. Malik gave Rob a task: do these five things, and he would agree to be his mentor.
“Malik wanted me to open up my LLC, and do research in the lighting industry, which I’d already done,” Rob remembers. “He wanted me to come up with an initial design of my light bulbs and my packaging, get my website together, and decipher how much I wanted to do with initial funding. I did those five items, and we hit the ground running, getting my business established.”
‘Ujamaa’ means a community is better once it bands together...We’re not just selling light bulbs; we’re selling life experiences.
Lighting the way
Influenced by his mom’s minimalist financial habits, Rob decided he was going to do three things when launching his business: focus on only one product, remain at his day job, and he wasn’t going to take out a loan. Raising the initial capital was hard, but he was able to save and invest $7,000 of his own money into Ujamaa Lighting by strictly following a popular personal finance program, and taking what the program calls “budgeting baby steps”—paying off his student loans, car loan, and credit cards.
By 2019, he had developed and manufactured Ujamaa’s first product, a 60-watt equivalent LED light bulb with a soft, yellowish-white illumination that requires only 9 watts of energy. Rob says his LED bulbs can save customers who switch from the old incandescent variety of bulb up to 85% on their energy bill.
Soon after, he embarked on a tour of farmer’s markets in Austin, Houston, and Atlanta, showcasing his light bulbs. It was in Houston that he had one of his most memorable experiences as a business owner.
“Imagine this huge farmer’s market of people selling beautiful clothing, skincare products, artwork, food, jewelry. Then if you just can imagine me, this big Black guy in the corner with a box of light bulbs on a pretty empty table. It was a weird sight, now that I think about it,” he chuckles.
People would nod at Rob as they passed his table but wouldn’t stop. This continued until an older woman paused to take a closer look.
“She was like, ‘Baby, where did you buy these lights at?’ I’m like, ‘No, ma’am. This is my company. I produce these.’ She said, ‘Oh, I thought you went to Family Dollar and bought some lights, and you was trying to sell them.’ Next thing I knew, the woman walked up to the dee-jay hosting the event and said to him, ‘Those are his lights back there! He’s not just selling regular lights.’”
The dee-jay got on the loud speaker and made an announcement: “Okay, everybody. Can I divert your attention to the guy in the corner over there with the light bulbs? Those are his lights, ladies and gentlemen. There’s a Black-owned lighting company. Go check him out.’”
That experience became yet another turning point for the young company. People flocked to the Ujamaa Lighting table, buying light bulbs, and offering encouragement and support.
“From there, I’ve had so many people from the community that I met there that still support me, and give me tips and pointers on what I need to do in order to sell,” he says. “I have my customers telling me how to sell my own merchandise. They’re so enthusiastic and so bought in into the story that they actually help me, even to this day.”
Persevering through hard times
When Rob launched his business, it was under a different name—another Swahili word that means ‘unity.’ But several months after he received his first order of light bulbs from the manufacturer, he learned that he would need to rebrand—there was a trademark issue with a Canadian firm bearing the English translation of the original business name. Rob was devastated and felt defeated by the outcome—all of his savings were invested in light bulbs with his old branding.
Luckily, fate intervened and We Buy Black, the same community where his entrepreneurial journey had begun, reached out.
“They said, ‘We want to buy your entire inventory, and we’re going to sell them within two months so you can rebrand,’” he recalls. They told me that on a Wednesday, and they wanted me in Atlanta by Friday. I loaded my truck with all my product and went up there.”
The light at the end of the tunnel
Ujamaa began selling its light bulbs in the Amazon store in 2020, and the following year, the company was accepted into Amazon’s Black Business Accelerator (BBA), a grant program aimed at growing and enabling the success of Black-owned businesses in Amazon’s store. Through BBA, Rob not only learned how to take advantage of the various tools Amazon provides to sellers, he also received a $10,000 grant that he is using to expand the company’s product catalog.
“We’re still learning how to sell and set ourselves apart from the hundreds of lighting companies and other businesses that are in Amazon’s store. But what’s been the game changer is actually having Amazon reps from BBA. I don’t think we would have had the success we’ve had if it weren’t for them.”
Thanks to the BBA grant, Rob has added two new products to Ujamaa Lighting’s catalog—holiday color-changing lights and a cool-white bulb. The holiday lights are something he’s always wanted to do, while the new bulb was created due to feedback from customers.
“I’ve talked to people of all nationalities and races who understand, ‘If you ain’t got any light bill money, turn off my lights,’” he laughs. “’They say, ‘Oh yeah, we did that too.’”
Drawing strength from his mother’s own experiences, Rob balances working full-time, managing a small business, and being a single parent to his 13-year-old son, JJ, who also plays an active role in the business and helps his father with decisions ranging from package design to social media marketing.
For Rob, lighting plays a big part in creating experiences that bring people together, like family dinners, reunions, or prom night, and it’s that feeling of fellowship and friendship that he wants his lights to evoke.
And even though he lives in his own home now, his mom’s influence can still be felt in Rob’s favoring his company’s flagship product, the warm white light bulb that he says keeps the ambiance at home mellow.
“My house is always dark,” he says with a grin. “Even though I own a lighting company. And you know why? It’s because of how I was raised, and I have light bill money.”
His smile grows bigger. “I have light bill money now, Mom.”