How coworking can be a force for good

 —  Article by Karina Saranovic

For many of today’s coworking spaces, the concept of building a community is key as they help members develop their ideas and gain the technical skills required to run a successful business.

For a growing number, however, contributing to the community has also become a fundamental part of their business mission.

A small but rising number of coworking sites have focused on social entrepreneurship, and by mobilizing budding entrepreneurs who are driving social change, they’re reinvigorating neighborhoods along the way.

Back in 2010 Impact Hub San Francisco was one of just a few hubs dedicated to social entrepreneurship. Fast forward to 2016 and Impact Hub has opened up 80 collaboration spaces across five continents with its 11,000 committed members supplying people with fresh ideas about how to create positive change in the world.

“The amount of capital flowing into this space is beginning to increase,” Tim Nichols, managing director of Impact Hub San Francisco, tells Fastco-exist.com. “We’re still a blip on the screen in terms of how much global capital is being invested, but now we’re seeing VCs [venture capital firms] come in and invest in social enterprises like Good Eggs.”

A new approach to making a difference

Coworking has not only provided people with a physical space in which to come together and exchange ideas, it has also encouraged people to reevaluate underutilized areas in their cities and better tailor real estate requirements to the needs of startups.

LA Prep is one West Coast American company building a successful model. The business accelerator has attracted headlines ever since founders Brian Albert and Mott Smith transformed a 50,000 sq ft warehouse into a culinary mecca in an emerging area of Los Angeles. By bringing groups of like-minded entrepreneurs together and offering the support of industry experts, this purpose-built food production center has created its own tightly knit community.

“The core value of coworking is you’re not alone. You’re working with all these people who are sharing the struggle,” says LA Prep co-owner Brian Albert. “In this modern economy where you can’t always count on the big business to provide you with a job and it’s all about your entrepreneurial energy, here’s an opportunity to put that energy to work in the context of a community.”

One key aspect of a coworking space is that it “breeds collaboration between start-ups with likeminded goals and creates an organic pool of diverse skills,” notes Devon Parry, Senior JLL Research Analyst of JLL’s Los Angeles office.

Under normal circumstances, a startup company’s expenses could rack up a six-figure tab, so coworking space offers an inexpensive option that enables smaller, underfunded businesses to compete in the marketplace.

The configuration of this space proves beneficial to smaller businesses by “promoting collaboration among the users of the facility and also lowering the barrier of entry for start-ups,” Parry adds. “It’s dynamic not to have to come up with the capital or sign a long term lease that would be required to occupy traditional office space.”

For LA Prep, it’s not just about building a community, it’s also about giving something back to the local community: The anchor tenant nonprofit LA Kitchen acts as an integral part of the LA Prep’s mission by recycling otherwise discarded food and raising awareness for important matters like hunger among senior citizens.

New skills for a new life

In Europe, Berlin has recently cultivated a reputation as a hub for social business. The Social Impact Lab, for example, stands as a prominent coworking space for many social entrepreneurs in the city. But some are taking the idea a stage further and using coworking sites to support some of Germany’s recently arrived refugees.

The ReDi school, which recently opened at the German Tech Entrepreneurship Center, is teaching refugees the basics of coding, providing them with access to coworking space alongside other entrepreneurs  as well as mentorship from local tech experts.

Over in Latin America, Agora Partnerships has helped more than one hundred businesses who have incorporated regional social issues into their sustainable business plans. “It’s about bringing people together, whether investors, volunteer MBA consultants, fellows, mentors – it’s about focusing our desire to make a difference in the world in the way that makes the most difference – helping entrepreneurs on the front lines of development to solve humanity’s toughest challenges,” says Ben Powell, Agora Partnership’s founder in a Forbes interview.

Their success stories include Nicaraguan-based clothing manufacturer Oscarito’s, which provides jobs to single mothers without formal education while companies like Ecoinca of Peru and Amano Artisans of Colombia helps smallholder farms and local artisans connect with global exporters.

“There’s a growing trend for people wanting to contribute towards tackling issues facing our generation. Coworking is becoming a key space for like-minded social entrepreneurs to benefit from the facilities and support networks available on small budgets and help in their plans to make a positive change in the area they care about,” JLL’s Parry adds.

As the coworking model evolves, it’s proving not just to be a launch pad for businesses looking to be the next billion dollar success story. It’s also helping a growing band of entrepreneurs to re-embrace some of the core principles at the heart of society: sharing ideas and working with one another in an effort to build a stronger community and a better future.

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