Cameroon-born entrepreneur and community leader Njukang Asong who recently got appointed board member of the African Diaspora Advisory Board in Prince George’s County, Maryland – USA, opens up to Pan African Visions about the Board’s mission and relationship with County Executive, Angela Alsobrooks.
Speaking to our reporter, Amos Fofung, at Spectrum Lounge, a business he co-owns, Asong who is a former student of the prestigious St. Joseph’s College, Sasse – Cameroon and an alumnus of the International Relations Institute of Cameroon walks us behind the significance of the recently proclaimed African Heritage month in the county.
The community leader who regularly gives back by donating to the underprivilege in his native country opens up about the secret to his successful business and reveals that plans are afoot to establish a second brand of one of his most successful ventures, Spectrum Lounge, an Afro-centric entertainment spot.
You are a member of African Diaspora Advisory board in PG country, what does the advisory do?
The African Diaspora Advisory Board has been in existence for over three years now. It was a promise made and a promise kept by the County Executive, Angela Alsobrooks when she wanted to expand her base, and she understood the importance of the African community within Prince George’s County which I should say, owns 40% of small and medium size businesses. She recognized the data and contribution of Africans within the county and thought it wise to have representation within that community.
So, one of the things she wanted to do was listen to us and to create a platform through which we could channel communication. So, the board is that medium where we are able to channel our concerns to the County Executive and her Office, and at the same time, she is able to direct solutions to us.
How strong is the African diaspora presence and what contributions are they making to the growth of the county?
That is a tough question and that is a reason why the Board is in existence because we have been operating in a very clandestine fashion. As you know there is strength in numbers but that has not been the case. If you look at other communities like the Latino, Jewish and Italian…they are extremely powerful and because they come together as one, they are able to portray their individual efforts collectively and that has a bigger influence in the community. That is what the Board seeks to achieve.
September is the African Heritage month in PG county, how did this come about?
When the County Executive came into office, she promised to create a board for African immigrants, a platform where we could have a conversation in a formal setting and she selected Mr. Vincent Iweanoge, one of the most prominent Africans in the county to chair the board and tasked him to find like-minded people to form a board. To make it functional, she created an office of liaison within the African community…so now we have a paid county staff official whose job is technically an African liaison to the county and that post is held by Dr Dasi Sylvia who happens to come from Cameroon. In as much as Dr Dasi Sylvia is a part of the board, she is a county employee with her sole job been to keep that connectivity between the board and the county.
May we know the reaction of Africans in the county to this proclamation and what kind of activities will be carried out in celebration of the Heritage month?
Remember, this is the first time we are launching this and unfortunately, we were limited due to Covid constrains. The initial planning was gigantic, we meant to bring Heads of States, Ambassadors, sponsors from different backgrounds, we intended to invite even the Governor of Maryland for the launching but for Covid 19. So, this tells you how excellent the County Executive is, because despite the constraints and issues with the pandemic, she didn’t want to cancel it, but rather downsized it. She said, we may not get the celebration that we need but we are going to have this month proclaimed now in a very small, opened setting and then we plan on a big celebration next year.
This year was just the proclamation, next year we are planning for something grandiose which will not only be celebrating the African Heritage month, but also to showcase Africa. I am talking about real African “juju” dance groups, cuisine, dressing, music and so much more. It doesn’t end there; a major highlight of this month is to give Africans access to real people of power to push our agenda and projects ahead.
What credit does the County Executive Angela Aslobrooks deserve for this major development?
We have to be thankful to the County Executive for she is a revolutionist in the way she reasons and interacts with the various communities that make up Prince George’s County. The first thing she did was make a promise to listen to Africans and doing this does not mean inviting them to town halls, she came to us. She has been to Spectrum, Swahili Village, and even Pastor Kobe’s church in Lanham. She is coming to us and listening to us – that is the first thing and the second is creating the African Diaspora Advisory Board, the third is creating the liaison office and hiring Africans to work for Africans and that is important because the liaison understands our struggles and can identify herself with us, the fourth is creating a multicultural center for Africans and the fifth is dedicating September as African Heritage month. And this singular act will stay even way after her reign. This is true leadership.
Taking of business, you are the Chief Operating Officer and Managing Partner at Spectrum Lounge, can you introduce that for those who do not know?
Spectrum is an entertainment spot for Africans and every lover of African music and food. We are a lounge, and we operate as a bar, restaurant and full-blown night life. We have created a business which speaks specifically to a need in the community. You know, you should be comfortable in your community and be able to eat your own food, listen to your own music and dine with your own fellows. Spectrum is something for us and people can appreciate what we have, and at the same time it is a business that does not take our people for granted. We try to provide top notch service that is offered anywhere else in the country. The question we ask is; why do we travel to Vegas? We go there for the ambiance, the life…and that is exactly what we try to recreate here at Spectrum.
What motivated you and your partner or team to settle on this line of business?
Because it has money (laughs). Life takes you to different angels and the real question is not what you do but how you used your skillset. I grew up in a home where my dad was a teacher and my mom an Agric Officer and skilled businesswoman…and she help shaped the entrepreneurial side of me. I choose night life because in business you must find a problem to solve, so, when I looked around and I said Well, withing the limited scoop of my resources, which problem can I solve.
At that time the only option available to us was Kitchen Near you (a bar and restaurant) and that was not the kind of service I needed, so instead of always complaining I decided to partner with Valery Holmes who is like a brother to me and on August 4, 2018 we opened Spectrum Lounge and God has blessed us since then because the community realized it was a need in the community.
Six months later we had to come up stairs because of increased demands; fast forward a year later covid hit and we had to create an outdoor space and now we have three sections and also plan on opening another branch in Upper Marlboro.
They are probably other businesses in the county that offer the same services, what makes Spectrum Lounge standout?
True they are several other lounges, but we look at the quality, service, and professionalism. They are young professionals like you Mr. Journalist who want to feel respected and enjoy some quality moment in a serene environment. A place where you can bring your Caucasian, Asian, Latino ,Caribbean friends and so on, and have fun without compromising, that is what Spectrum is here for. To give you that home-away from home feeling with a blend of extraordinary customer service similar to those offered at top bars and lounges across America.
What are some of the challenges you and your team faced in putting together and running a thriving business?
The main challenge as with every business is access to capital. Money was tight and we had to stretch, borrow as much as we can and dip into credit cards and so on. Access to capital is one thing, followed by access to information and what is the areas which the African diaspora board will be able to support young African in. you should be able to walk into the office and say I want to open a gas station and be handed a checklist to guide you. Perhaps our most daunting challenge was being able to prove our business concept works.
We were data driven and decided to not go the regular route taken by restaurants. Instead of selling a hundred things on our menu, we started our business and said No, McDonalds sells just one thing and that is their burger and fries.
So, we said we said we will sell one item and over time and due to increase demand, we increased our menu to about five items and that is our concept. Today we are thriving and thinking of establishing new units.
For those in the African Diaspora interested in doing business here in Prince George’s County, any recipe, or tips for success you want to share?
I would say, secure the bag. Whatever you do now, make sure you do it very well and first be comfortable and then use some of the savings now to risk it. Because I tell you, business is a risky venture. But you can do things concurrently. I can work as an IT professional and making money but with an end goal which is to open a healthcare company. And of cause, they are some basic rules of success you can adopt. Such as don’t procrastinate, be proactive and start with the end in mind. Remember, reading book is important too for we are a function of what we feed ourselves.
You are very involved in your community not just here in America but also back home in Cameroon. Can you give us a highlight into some of your activities back home?
I believe a lot in the function of giving back. Having been blessed in my own little way, I ask myself, what can I do to elevate the next person’s status? For a blessing is only completed when it’s passed on and it is in that same mindset that when I go back home, giving back to my community is always top on my agenda.
The last time I went back home we organized a symposium at the International Relations Institute of Cameroon, IRIC. As an alumnus of the institution, I helped groomed the students on entrepreneurial skills and community relations as well as life after University. My other activities include donating to nongovernmental organizations, supporting developmental initiatives and coaching youths in my community on being the best they can be.