The growth of freelancers, content creators and entrepreneurs in America is not only proving that you don’t have to work a corporate job to be successful, but that the need for functional co-working spaces is not a want but a necessity.
For Black entrepreneurs, only a handful of the 5,000-plus co-working spaces are Black-owned and cater to Black professionals and creatives.
Seeing the need for designing a space where multi-cultural, LGBTQ+ and women-owned startups could work and build a community within, Medina created =SPACE, a self-funded co-working space that provides resources and access to underserved, high-growth minority entrepreneur businesses.
To learn more about =SPACE and how it’s still serving its members even in the midst of COVID-19, In The Know spoke with Medina on the importance of Black-owned co-working venues, why Black businesses are struggling during the pandemic and other businesses that are also leading the charge for change in their communities.
Medina, the conversation around co-working spaces for Black and LGBTQ+ businesses has been a huge topic. Tell us about =SPACE.
“=SPACE was created out of the pain point so many founders of color experience. There exists a knowledge gap as much as a wealth gap and we are the space to find access & resources.
I founded =SPACE with my co-founders to provide programming for startups, coaching for tech companies and a culture of true diversity. We have created the space that we needed when we were building our first company (before =SPACE).
When you walk into our campus, what you encounter is a true sense of culture. My team and I worked on the facility with our own hands. There is sweat, equity and energy coming up from the floorboards to the lighting in the ceiling and our space creates a feeling of belonging for everyone there.
We curate our music from samba to afro-beats, we source our decor and treats from local business owners of color, and on our walls, you are celebrated for your dreams and hard work.
We offer programming to help build, grow and scale businesses, with the vast majority (less than 85 percent) of that programming being free. Our signature programs include Women-in-Novation, a one-day summit that celebrates the accomplishments of behind-the-scenes sheroes across industries. We have also become the organizers of Newark Tech Week, which provides an opportunity for all tech-based businesses in Newark to connect and introduce people to the innovation in our city. Our programming is an opportunity to surge our community forward.”
Who is the =SPACE consumer? Why did we need a Black co-space?
“Our SPACE(r)s come from many different industries. Some are startup founders working on the launch of their platform and others are traditional small business owners ramping up their product and service lines within our community. =SPACE has become a space for many in the media industry — content producers, podcasters and photographers utilize our studios for shoots and programming.
In a world where multicultural founders bring their business to profit at 3 times the rate of their white male counterparts but receive less than 1 percent of available VC funding, spaces that encourage the success of our target audience are essential.
Latinas, who are starting businesses at 150 percent the rate of others, are not finding spaces that demonstrate cultural competency. I chose to create this space to directly support them because I am them. It was becoming too much for me to sit by and see the talent-rich businesses continue to be the under-betted and marginalized.
To see valid and amazing founders relegated to social impact budgets, and not be seen as bettable and bankable, was a problem, which is why we have a focus on founders who identify as women, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+.“
COVID-19 has affected and displaced many creatives and businesses. How has =SPACE shifted its business model to adjust to the crisis but also help its community?
“In our community, we are seen as an anchor for the multicultural founders of the city. With the outbreak of COVID-19, we took three days to pivot our SPACE into a digital community, offering digital training to support the many businesses in Newark that have had to close their doors. Our amazing partners have shown up and out by volunteering their time. We have crafted programs around mindsets and strategies, on the keys to business growth during economic strain, and on how to thrive during uncertain times.
Co-working is based on physical spaces, but community is a lot deeper than that.
At the moment, we are unable to use our event space and other amenities, so instead, we’ve decided to shift to a digital experience. Using tools like Zoom, YouTube Live and social media, have allowed us to keep up with our programs and events — including weekly mental health meditations and various businesses-related workshops for entrepreneurs.
We will soon launch =SPACE Master Classes, which are classes over several weeks covering specific topics relevant to entrepreneurs and small business owners — like creating decks, the importance of digital strategy in today’s world and growth-hacking. A crucial part of coworking is being able to speak with other founders who can relate to the journey, so we’ve made it a point to check in with our members and provide a virtual space for all of us to connect, share, vent and make plans for whatever is next.”
“Many co-working spaces have lost members since the crisis began, but expenses like rent and payroll still need to be met and in this current climate there is a lack of access to relief funds. Much of the available funding cuts out or limits funds available to smaller spaces like ours because of the requirements to apply, one example being FTE requirements.
The fact is that barriers to entrepreneurship are showing themselves in many ways. 2.6 million businesses in America are Black-owned, and 2.5 million of them, or 96 percent are sole proprietors and have no employees. So, when stipulations for FTEs and W2 requirements directly affect how much relief business owners can get, 96 percent of Black business owners are automatically excluded. The numbers are marginally better for Latinx business owners.
Akosua Ayim, our CEO and I, have been working to represent the overlooked needs of our community, so we are actively advocating at every Zoom conference, every meeting we attend with state and city officials and philanthropic foundations. We have these organizations coming to us to understand the landscape.
We have to be vocal during these times because we are fighting not just for our business but for all small business owners of color.”
How are you still building a sense of community?
“I realize what has been keeping me grounded in my purpose is our community. We have been holding one-on-ones with our members digitally, and our social media channels allow us to ask our community where they are and direct them to programs that could help them. We build community at every webisode we host. There is a way to bring everyone together digitally that lifts the isolation we are all feeling to enrich yourself through gaining skills or relieving yourself of the tensions and stress of the stay-at-home order.”
What tips would you give to businesses who are currently working through all that is happening right now?
“Stay the course, hold on to your why! It has grounded me. At every point during this pandemic, I repeat to myself my why. Every business owner has a why that will serve you right now.
My next tips come from sitting and listening to all the options for relief. First, please look at your access for grants, there are leading companies trying to assist those in need. I am asking businesses to look at funding that will not put you at a disadvantage once this is all said and done. If you’re able to get grants over loans, which will have small businesses waylay their debt and be further burdened when they enter an uncertain market, do that. There just appears to be a continued predatory nature in lending, so I would ask fellow business owners to utilize loans as a last option.
Strategically, I am asking all my business owners to understand that the future is digital, we have to evolve our platforms to have multiple revenue streams. I recommend they expand, whether you’re focused on products or services — you have to optimize your digital presence.”
Lastly, we can’t do this alone. What other brands and businesses are doing amazing things in the community that you look to and are supportive of?
“The Scotch Porter personal care line is catered towards men of color and I have respected and held their founder Quallis in high regard for many years. Quallis created a product that truly made me feel seen as a man of color. He crafted this amazing, high-quality line of grooming products and worked year after year to grow his brand and is now on the shelves of Target. That means something to me, to have us seen and succeed on a large scale.”
City of Newark
“12 years ago, I chose to move to the City of Newark and become a part of a multicultural city that was led by leaders of color. This city has made me proud at every turn in the way it chooses to support its citizens. Our Mayor established a fund separate from federal and state relief to assist the businesses closed due to COVID-19. These initiatives and so many others continue to renew my faith in the change our politicians can achieve.”
I have maintained a partnership and close relationship with Kathryn Finney, founder of Digital Undivided, an amazing organization that catalyzes growth in Black and Latinx startups. The team is led by the most amazing women, sheroes who share my passion for tearing down the obstacles faced by so many multicultural founders. They use data, programming and community to build up and amplify the success rates for their members. In response of COVID-19, they launched the ‘Dooney Fund’, named after Kathryn’s grandmother, to help women founders to keep their dream alive.”
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