Guest Columnists

CoLabs create a community of leaders

Photo credit: Fairfield CoLab#xa0;
Photo credit: Fairfield CoLab 
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On any given day at the Fairfield CoLab, you’ll hear members brainstorming SEO tactics, talking through marketing plans, and hashing out coding issues in their clients’ HTML. In the kitchen, spontaneous debates arise about the merits of GMOs, raw food diets, and the value of work-life balance. Occasionally you’ll catch references to the Maharishi Effect or Ayurvedic practices, a nod to the Transcendental Meditation movement that took up residence in this small town in the 1970s.

And sometimes it’s quiet at the CoLab, as members pop in their ear buds, put their heads down, and focus on building their businesses. In each of these instances, however, you can see a nascent but enthusiastic community developing.

The Fairfield CoLab opened to the public in September 2015, the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of hard work and volunteer hours. The founding members tore down walls and sanded floors in what is now the CoLab’s home, a building overlooking Fairfield’s central square. Though it’s been scarcely more than six months since the official launch, the CoLab has become a hive of entrepreneurship and dialogue in this town of roughly 10,000.

Coworking spaces have sprung up across the state, from Gravitate in Des Moines to Vault in Cedar Rapids to IC CoLab in Iowa City. David Tominsky, director of programs at the New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative (NewBoCo) in Cedar Rapids, says there are at least 19 coworking spaces in Iowa right now, but he suspects there are more. Although they cater to different communities, these coworking spaces share common traits. Chief among them are community and leadership.

The Fairfield CoLab’s tagline is “Your Solution to Creative Isolation.” The beauty of it, and other coworking spaces, is that it provides a place for freelancers, remote workers, and entrepreneurs to work alongside one another and reclaim a sense of belonging that’s often lost when one opts out of a more traditional work arrangement.

Rather than hole up in their home offices or camp out in coffee shops, CoLab members can work out of a shared professional space. This is particularly powerful in places like Fairfield, a small town surrounded by rolling farmland. The countryside may be beautiful, but it can also be isolating enough to make people consider leaving for larger cities and more opportunities.

Of course, that’s undesirable in a state that’s already grappling with low talent retention rates. Tominsky says there’s an effort underway to better track economic impact, but he’s confident that such hubs promote business development and job creation. He wants to document these instances and pitch communities on why they should invest in entrepreneurial spaces.

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“I think a place where the collision of ideas among similarly minded people is important, particularly in a small community where there is no clear gathering place for entrepreneurs, who can end up isolated and moving onto a more urban community with a more clearly defined support structure and entrepreneur network,” says Adam Plagge, executive director of the Fairfield Economic Development Association. “Creating this place in the heart of the community encourages vitality downtown and better community engagement.”

Entrepreneur Austin Reed planned to leave Fairfield for Seattle to launch his business and commercial finance company, but he changed his mind after visiting the CoLab.

“I was looking at moving back to Seattle to be part of a larger community that shared ideas and created a positive atmosphere for building a business. The Fairfield CoLab has created this type of environment in a smaller community,” Reed says. “I have met people and generated business contacts that would not have been possible in a regular office or working out of my home. Because of this I am involved in a couple of new business ventures that I would not have even known about.”

Leadership is also woven into the coworking concept, as the communities that develop around these spaces foster innovative thinking and empower members. They’re entrepreneurial hubs that can spur economic development.

Coworking spaces attract both tech professionals and creatives, which creates an atmosphere ripe for collaboration. Designers, marketing technologists, programmers, and writers can “partner up and get to know one another,” Tominsky says. Independent freelancers can refer one another for client projects, expanding their own networks and boosting the entire community.

“That happens far more in a coworking space than if you were working alone in isolation,” Tominsky says.

Coworking communities also have the potential to become social leaders. The lack of diversity in entrepreneurial spaces is a national concern, but local hubs can change the tide. Tominsky says that NewBoCo’s membership is about 80 percent male, so the organization has been re-evaluating its programming to attract more women. He says NewBoCo’s team is working to retain members who are women and members of diverse ethnic backgrounds to inspire a wider variety of people to participate.

“You need mentors and leaders that populations can identify with,” Tominsky says.

An emphasis on diverse leadership can be transformative, especially in areas traditionally dominated by white men. The Fairfield CoLab is also developing programs aimed at engaging more women, from successful entrepreneurs to students interested in developing their own business ideas.

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Though they share similar missions, coworking hubs are unique to their communities. The types of resources people need in Des Moines may differ from those in Webster City, Decorah, and Sioux City. The programming reflects those varying circumstances.

In Fairfield, events so far have centered around skills development. These include a weekly mastermind group and workshops on productivity and time management, business taxes and accounting, social media, personal finance, and freelance writing.

Tominsky’s vision of a successful entrepreneurial community is one that empowers members to take leadership roles on the projects that interest them.

“You need to get a core group together and say, ‘What are the assets? Who wants to be involved? What are they interested in doing? And how do we get there?” The coworking organizations provide the place and the resources, but it’s ultimately about helping members achieve their goals and strengthen their communities.

“It’s saying, ‘What do you need? I’m not going to do it for you, but I’m gonna help you and lift you up.’”

• Casey Hynes is a freelance journalist. She is a member of the Fairfield CoLab and serves on its board of directors. Comments: casey.hynes@gmail.com caseyhynes.com

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