Indianapolis, Day 1
By Britney T-M
TRIPPIN’ is a summer blog series featuring coworking spaces, as BoxJelly intern Britney T-M travels to attend George Mason University’s Social Innovation Program. Follow the trip on Google Maps.
When I first landed in Indianapolis, IN, it was a grey and cold. It seemed so unusual, I almost forgot it was June. I packed with the anticipation of it being 90 and 100% humidity, but instead it was 65 and windy. There was no time to be self-conscious about my wardrobe though. As soon as I landed, it was off to the first space with my friend Scottie, who lives in Indianapolis and graciously took time off to shuttle me around/hangout/explore the city for $10/hour!
Arriving to the Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community was like coming upon a peaceful oasis in a midwestern wasteland of forgotten suburban shopping malls and streets void of sidewalks. I missed the opportunity to meet anyone from the Center, but found that the space spoke for itself.
The mural was the first thing we noticed – I mean, how could you not, it’s a huge wall mural. It was one of the murals commissioned as a part of 46 for XLVI, and was what told us we were in the right place. And by “right place” I mean the correct address, but also a positive state of being. In May 2011, Big Car converted this old tire shop in an abandoned mall lot into a community center that includes a library, computer lab, event exhibition space, and a coworking space. Big Car is a non-profit organization, run by a collective of artists, musicians, writers, and active citizens who couple art projects with economic development in order to uplift communities. The Service Center hosts events and offers a wide range of tools and services by and for the community to fulfill director Jim Walker’s intentions to include the community artistically.
The space is very organic in that sense of development. This wasn’t simply made for a community, but a place that was to be made by the community. Vegetables grew in huge planter boxes atop the large asphalt parking lot, chickens clucked in the pens, and you could see the progression of the the ceiling mural of clouds and blue skies.
I peered into the building from the glass of the garage doors into a space that may have been empty of people, but was certainly brimming with life. There looked to be projects in every corner of the garage space with various tools and materials about. There were flyers up for Big Car and Service Center events, as well as events in other places around Indianapolis.
My focus is in social innovation and placemaking, so this sort of space is like a realized dream. Staring from the outside in, it sort of felt like I was missing a really great party. In a way, it was a gentle reminder that community uplift and improvement are far beyond plans or instantaneity; it’s a cultivation and long-term investment, the benefits of which are collective among those in the present, and may not even be realized until the future.
This made me think of all the development going on in Honolulu. Whether they are for community or commercial purposes, how sustainable will the projects be? Will they implement action by the community or be impositions upon the community? The midwest is often perceived as a dismissable region that’s only good for corn, but it’s organizations like Big Car and The Service Center that earn the title for the Heartland of America.
For the next space, I gave Scottie a couple hours off so I could use Uber to get to The Speak Easy. When I was looking at The Speak Easy’s twitter, I stumbled upon a retweet from Chris Nakutis about “$20 off your first Uber ride”. Uber is an on-demand request tool for private drivers. The app pinpoints your location, notifies a driver of your request, gives you an estimated time of arrival, and can even give you a fare estimate. Payments are charged through your app service account, so the experience was very seamless. I had the pleasure of riding with Moses. We chatted about Nigeria (where he is from), Hawaii, and his dreams of traveling to the Aloha state. He also asked if I was meeting Thomas, who has been working out of The Speak Easy helping Uber Indianapolis establish itself. “Oh, no, I am not,” I said, but I serendipitously ended up meeting him anyways while I was there.
It was also serrendipitous that I ran into a member outside who was able to grant my entry into the place. There are key cards for the door scanners, so its no wonder that the feeling inside is one of trust and security. Opened in January 2012, The Speak Easy is adjacent to DeveloperTown, a venture development firm and tech accelerator, who owns the building which houses the two, along with TinderBox and another organization I neglected to get the name of.
A coworking space for entrepreneurs and startups, The Speak Easy has a large private classroom with chalkboard walls, four smaller meeting rooms, a reception area, book nook, large common area, kitchen and bar, as well as a lofted work area.
Unfortunately, Denver (exec. director) and I were unable to meet, but she graciously invited me to tour the space and use it for a webinar I had to attend for George Mason. The Speak Easy member Lily Smith and her coworking coworker who let me into the building, were also gracious enough to help me get acquainted with the space.
As I was attending the webinar, I picked up on words like “cities” “drivers” and “Uber” from the guy next to me. At this point, The Speak Easy can claim they are, in fact, fosters of serendipity. “The guy next to me” turned out to be Chris himself, the same guy that tweeted the Uber promo, and Uber Indianapolis’s AGM.
Once I was finished with the webinar, it was time to explore. At first I felt a little awkward in the space; in any coworking environment, being the ‘new guy’ is inevitable because you are walking into an apparently functioning community that has a culture and set of rules you are still being introduced to. It reminds me of when you are first introducing ideas as an entrepreneur, but instead of presenting business models, you’re presenting yourself. You’ve just got to jump in the water; even if you don’t know how to swim, you’ll never learn without getting in. The awkwardness quickly subsided as I talked to members willing to share their Speak Easy stories.
Stephanie works for the 3rd Street Attention Agency (“basically an ad agency that’s more engaged with clients”). She likes sharing in the energy of the space and the relaxed atmosphere. Her company gathers at The Speak Easy when they don’t want to be virtual, and has offered to pay for her membership. As a 22 year old professional, it will be exciting for her to grow her career in an environment with such a network of developers, programmers, and entrepreneurs.
Founders of App Press, Smith and Glass have been members from the very beginning. They said working at The Speak Easy “…has made it easier. There’s opportunity to run problems [among other members].” They’re open to listening to others, and appreciate the proactive spirit for problem solving that’s ubiquitous among members. Chris also commented on this, even after spending just 16 days in the space.
Both Peters and Graham work for Formstack, which likes its employees to acquaint themselves with and become part of the community. “There are different distractions at Formstack,” mentions Peters, “that are not here at the Speak Easy.” The dynamic spaces can lend a more social experience if they sit downtstairs, or a more concentrated environment if they work up in the loft or private meeting room. Formstack is a sponsor of the Speak Easy, so their memberships are paid for as well.
Talking to members, the ecosystem of industry in Indianapolis started to unfold itself into something bigger than I had fully comprehended. It’s location in relation to the rest of the country is strategic for companies that have a national or global spread; as a crossroads point of the mainland, its history of production and affordability lends much potential (and capability) for investment; there’s a high number of skilled workers (IU, Purdue, Butler, and a number of large universities are in the neighboring areas). with such a large population, workers as well as organizations have an immediate need to be innovative, and thus, have much more of a support system to be so. It seems like the coworking industry will develop similarly to the tech park industry in Indiana. It made me think of Hawaii’s ecosystem; what are our advantages? Where are our barriers? What are we doing that is inhibiting us? Within the past 2 years, Indianapolis already has five coworking spaces, while Honolulu only has one that is open. Scale is obviously part of this issue, but maybe we are not as progressive back home as we think we are.
I finally ended the day and got to Mark’s house, where I couch surf every time I’m in Indy. I met Mark at Hanover, and while his admission stopped after sophomore year, our friendship continued. As a graduate student of IU’s philanthropic studies program, his insight on funds and endowments in the area started to make sense for the resources that are available to non-profits and businesses. Granted, Indiana as a state tends to be urban-centric, neglecting problems in rural areas; but, the initiatives and actions of those in the Hoosier state are nonetheless amazing, and something the rest of the country would be smart to look twice at.