Thinking Outside the Box – Think Rubix’s Akama-Makia Leads the Firm’s People-First Movement
A peak symbol of ‘80s nostalgia, Rubik’s Cubes have often been looked at as the ultimate 3D puzzle for all ages, kids and adults alike. Enamored with that same level of problem solving and critical thinking, culture-first public affairs firm Think Rubix is all about finding the best possible solutions for its clients, solving each and every perceived puzzle while creating an impact.
With offices in Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Birmingham, Alabama; and Little Rock, the firm is focused on helping the leaders of organizations or other initiatives develop innovative solutions. In 2017, Think Rubix was founded by strategists, researchers, policy makers, creatives and storytellers. Now, in its fifth year, Think Rubix has built a nationwide firm filled with creators and innovators who are diverse in every way, but most importantly, in their experiences.
Rhonna-Rose Akama-Makia, the firm’s director of engagement, is acclaimed for many reasons, serving as a prime example of the embodiment of the values Think Rubix holds. Akama-Makia is a Little Rock native, with a reach spanning not only Arkansas, but globally. Known around the office as the firm’s “chief people mover,” Akama-Makia is in charge of quite literally, moving the people.
“It really is all about people, and moving the people from the margins to the middle,” Akama-Makia said.
As is true in many careers, day-to-day life looks different with each passing day in public affairs. Because she works at a firm that is dispersed in several locations across the country, Akama-Makia prioritizes checking news daily, informing herself on anything that could impact the clients Think Rubix serves, or the areas where its physical offices are located.
While Think Rubix focuses on innovation, the clients the firm takes on are also innovators and creative thinkers.
“I think one of the most important things in helping our clients is understanding the culture of where our client is currently, and understanding what will work best for them,” Akama-Makia said. I also think it’s important to know what is deliverable, what goals are important to them and what strategies are working best for what clients want to achieve.”
Logging at least 40,000 miles on her car this year and hitting new levels of American Airlines frequent flyer status, Akama-Makia, just like Think Rubix, prides herself on not being a removed aspect, but a face-to-face one.
“Rhonna has probably spent the most time on the road with clients face-to-face,” said Tristan Wilkerson, managing principal for Think Rubix. “In one week I think she was in four different places. We are very involved with our clients and a lot of the time, it is necessary to physically meet clients where they are.”
Social affairs is a broad umbrella under which many different subjects fall under. Truthfully, social affairs can mean something different in several different contexts. In being able to accurately understand public affairs and shape the culture of the communities in which it is involved, Think Rubix prioritizes diversity, equity and innovation.
“The firm itself reflects so much of the diversity that we strive for: We’re diverse in gender, identities and cultures – and we celebrate this – because it just goes to show the ways in which we are able to do our work,” Wilkerson said. “Culture-first is our desire; we are working with our clients in a very hands-on way. We see challenges as opportunities and our goal is to help our clients understand the challenges they’re having so we can implement the best practices for these situations, and if the best practices don’t exist, we create them. The outcome of all of this tends to be far more equitable for the clients who want to do really good, equitable things in society.”
“Our team is not just diverse in race and culture, but in talent and experience,” Wilkerson added.
“We have people working with us who went to University of Arkansas at Little Rock, people who were born in Blytheville and people who have PhDs from Berkeley. We have London School of Economics graduates and folks who work for us internationally. From Florida to Minnesota, we have so much diversity. It is so much more than physically diverse people in a picture,” he said. “Our firm is a fine example of what happens when we cultivate leadership in our state.”
Nia McConnell, project manager for Think Rubix, works across all aspects of the firm and is hands-on in crafting solutions for clients. “I have a really unique and cool position at the firm, and it’s that I get to be part of crafting solutions for every situation and I get to work with every client our firm takes on,” McConnell said. “Whether it’s a local campaign, a narrative campaign or researching ways to help a bank learn how to reach a new market, I get to be part of all of these experiences.”
In all of its efforts in diversity, equity and innovation, Think Rubix is equally diverse in the projects and campaigns in which they take on. “The No.1 value we have at Think Rubix is diversity, and we all have such different lived experiences, but we chose to come together to shape the world the way we want. We shape our cities, the state and nationally,” McConnell said. “Diversity of our experiences is truly at every intersection.”
Think Rubix has worked on a number of noteworthy projects and has helped many clients achieve goals. Recently, the firm took on a public-engagement campaign for the Little Rock School District Board, “Bright Futures, Better Schools.” The firm approached the campaign with a child-focused delivery. As a result, on Nov. 2, 2021, the LRSD Board held its special election day to vote on a millage extension that ultimately was approved by Little Rock voters, resulting in $300 million to pay for necessary upgrades in the district.
In facing the need for school construction and repairs around the Little Rock School District, the Board had failed in two previous elections to pass the millage extension. However, following Think Rubix’s 2021 campaign, 75.45% (5,736 people) voted in favor to approve the millage, with 24.55% (1,866 people) voting against it.
In addition to its work with the LRSD, Think Rubix has been at the forefront of several other campaigns. Akama-Makia has years of experience in working on campaigns locally and across the country, and is currently serving as the campaign manager for Arkansas Democrat Dr. Chris Jones in his gubernatorial race. Prior to becoming Jones’ campaign manager, Akama-Makia worked on Joyce Elliott’s campaign, a New York City mayoral race and Jana Lynne Sanchez’s campaign for Texas’ sixth congressional district, in which Akama-Makia was able to bring her within 300 votes of second place in a special run-off general election.
As it is likely that Akama-Makia is the first Black woman to lead a gubernatorial race in Arkansas as a campaign manager, she has been making and leading history on multiple fronts.
“Connection and strategy are so important and I think my accomplishments speak to the on-the-ground effort I give. I work in an environment that is intimately aware of what’s going on. It’s not just about making sure we have strong candidates running for office, but it’s also about having a strong campaign,” Akama-Makia said. “We’ve [Wilkerson and Akama-Makia] been on the Chris Jones campaign since the very beginning. Jones won all 75 counties in the Democratic primaries, and this just shows how hands-on we’ve all been with his strategy and how much we have been meeting people where they’re at.”
Upon realizing Jones’ impact at the primaries, Akama-Makia allowed herself a moment to celebrate, then got to work. “The night of [the primaries results] I only cried once,” she recalled. “I promised myself I could react and then get back to doing the work. A lot of people don’t understand that nothing in politics is assured and no matter what the credentials are or what experience a candidate has, absolutely nothing is assured,” Akama-Makia said. “Knowing people resonated with Chris Jones’ message really resonated with me.”
Akama-Makia can take credit for leading that same campaign, which raised almost $2 million for Jones, a record amount of funds raised for a Democratic candidate in Arkansas.
“Rhonna led all of those efforts in directly moving people into action. As we are aware about what Arkansans need and who can help them in achieving goals, Rhonna does this day-in and day-out,” McConnell said.
“When it comes to any political campaign, I think people should realize that nothing is set in stone and nothing is inevitable. Yet they should be aware that Arkansas is known for making history,” Akama-Makia said. “Arkansans need to be aware that the governor’s seat is the executive seat of the state and they need to be informed and aware of who is making decisions for the people in our state.”
Akama-Makia also notes that representation is one of the biggest ways in which a community can create equity.
“It is so important that we have representation in [political] seats. This isn’t just in identity but also in policy and alignment of values,” Akama-Makia said, adding that diverse candidates are often the least-funded candidates.
Whether the campaign is dealing with local issues, or working to elect officials, Think Rubix works across the board in public affairs with its clients.
“We build successful campaigns because we practice shaping the policy, and shaping the world we live in. We deal with it all – from government relations to media communications and corporate-social communications,” Wilkerson said. “We actually practice the social innovation aspects and really think about what it looks like to move people from the margins to the middle.”
Wilkerson, who also serves as a general partner at High Street Equity Partners – which is based in Little Rock – is passionate in not just solving problems, but creating opportunities for those who need solutions. High Street invests in founders of color and women founders who may not otherwise not have access to funding. On the block of equity and public affairs, High Street and Think Rubix intersect, allowing for the public affairs firm to continue to grow its impact.
“The reality is, with my talent, I could be doing a lot of things. There are a lot of industries I could be part of,” Akama-Makia said. “When I start thinking about my purpose, and I ground myself, I believe my purpose is to show up to the fight.
“There’s a lot of positions that require strategic thinking from behind the scenes and I know that I am very strategy-minded,” she added. “You can blame it on me being the oldest of my five siblings, or my deep-rooted sense of faith and belonging, but I just know that at the end of the day, when I go to sleep, I am most proud of myself for showing up for the people who couldn’t.”