Robots are taking our jobs, millenials are killing the diamond, taxi, and cable tv industries, and workplace loyalty is becoming a thing of the past. The way we live and work always changes but one aspect of society always remains. We have always benefited from a special shared space to focus, exchange ideas, and trade resources. The ancient Roman baths hosted some of the most influential thinkers in history, medieval farmers raised their livestock together in common pastures, and the coffee houses in 17th century England catalyzed the Age of Enlightenment by hosting intellectual discussion fueled by caffeine rather than ale. Although the coffee house has been a staple of informal idea sharing and working for centuries, it’s time for an evolved community space. At our season finale workshop, Nicole Vasquez, Founder, President and Community Connector at The Shift Chicago shared her vision of coworking offices as the community centers of our time.
After moving to Uptown a few years ago, Nicole became frustrated that The Loop had the majority of coworking offices, Uptown had none, and that it was ridiculous to have to commute 15 minutes just to get on wifi, be able to print, and work at a desk. Since there was no coworking space nearby, she just decided to open her own. The Shift opened last year with about 2,500 SF of space designed not just for working, but specifically for working in the community of Uptown.
Uptown has a unique demographic history, sometimes resulting in conflict and sometimes resulting in surprising partnerships. In the 1960s, many poor, marginalized people lived in Uptown. Oppressed by racism and classism, various ethnic and racial groups organized into activist organizations. Among these were The Black Panther Party for Self Defense inspired by Malcolm X, the Young Patriots Organization comprised of displaced white southerners (many were racist and flaunted the Confederate Flag), and Puerto Ricans who gathered under the name of Young Lords. Despite their differences, they banded together as the Rainbow Coalition to fight systemic class oppression. Together, they provided services such as health clinics, food for the homeless and hungry, and legal advice.
In the 1970’s and ‘80s, Uptown became a refuge for Asian immigrants. Now, Uptown is 60% white and, like many parts of northern Chicago, it’s experiencing rapid demographic change. Given the community’s complex makeup, it was vital to Nicole, a relative newcomer to the neighborhood, that she gather feedback from as many voices as possible, as well as their blessings. She spent months talking with local leaders to get a feel for the neighborhood’s complexities as she developed the business she runs today.
In those early days, Nicole was often asked if she lived at The Shift because she spent so much time making sure everything was running well and the members were happy. Her constant presence solidified her as the space’s community connector. Although it can be difficult to approach a stranger for help, a friendly, recognizable face can facilitate new connections much more naturally. The role of the community connector might be the most important and unique aspect of The Shift. When members join, they fill out a profile that identifies their areas of expertise, what projects they’re working on, what they might need help with, and which resources they might need. Armed with this information and her ties to the community, Nicole can play matchmaker between professionals to create a carefully curated network -- a service that isn’t easily found anywhere else.
As with any new business, the operation has faced its share of challenges. Because The Shift is intended to be a community resource, the membership rates are kept as affordable as possible which slims the profit margins. At this stage, The Shift cannot easily hire additional full-time employees and the marketing budget is restrained. To overcome these challenges, The Shift relies on a bit of bartering. Two members help manage the space in exchange for a small stipend and free membership. Some organizations may utilize the meeting space for free in order to expose more people to the benefits of coworking. These arrangements help the business run, but they also strengthen the sense of community.
Other entrepreneurs are beginning to take lessons from The Shift’s success and from the value of its community-focused mission. Nicole recently partnered with fellow entrepreneur Levi Baer to start another coworking space appropriately named Second Shift. It is located in Logan square and has double the area of The Shift at about 5,000 SF but the differences don’t end there; the two businesses are entirely separate legal entities and maintain their own brand identities. Most branding consultants would shake their heads at this decision but it was made for an important reason. If a coworking space is to truly serve as a community center, it must be nimble enough to respond to its unique environment and an independent identity provides that flexibility. Nicole uses the wisdom she gained from starting The Shift to guide big picture decisions and Levi handles the day-to-day, boots on the ground operations. Second Shift is thriving and will hopefully serve as a solid precedent for other “community center” coworking offices.
With the recent rise of the gig economy, coworking spaces are picking up the slack left by coffee shops. They provide a new way for community members to work, collaborate, and strengthen community cohesion. Fueled by the idea that coworking spaces can drive innovative community connections, thinking, and collaborations, Nicole plans to expand her reach by helping other entrepreneurs create community-specific coworking spaces. So, if you’re tired of needlessly commuting downtown or if your local coffee shop isn’t quite cutting it, you can take after Nicole and just open your own coworking space.
Workshop agenda + notes here.