Long Beach, California-based WE Labs just opened its second coworking space in the historic Packard Building, a Spanish Baroque-styled car showroom from the 1920s. Behind it is an empty lot, next door is an auto body shop, down the street are swanky new apartments, and a block away is the light rail. It looks like a textbook gentrification setting, but WE Labs's clients differ from what you'd expect at mainstream, big-city coworking spaces like those in the WeWork empire. They include a bookkeeper, a mental health services nonprofit, painters, and a roller derby-themed fashion designer. Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. - 6p.m. access is $175 per month—on the low side for coworking space in the L.A. area.
"The thing that I'm most pleased by right now is the fact that we're drawing in membership from the community here rather than so much attracting outside folks into the area," says Robbie Brown, one of WE Labs
' managing partners and boot-strapping investors. "It's less threatening than walking into a coworking space and seeing a bunch of white guys in dress shirts, their faces in computers and typing away." (Full disclosure: I rent space at WE Labs.)
WE Labs is one of several new work spaces with public-service missions that include supporting low-income and minority entrepreneurs, artists, and social enterprises—nonprofits or for-profit companies that put social goals first. Some of these spaces, like maker-oriented Ponyride in Detroit, are nonprofits; several, likeHQ Raleigh
in North Carolina, and WE Labs, are for-profit social enterprises called Benefit Corporations (B Corps).
This nascent national trend has been locally focused. "I found that there were communities across this country that were struggling with the same kinds of questions of building their entrepreneurial ecosystems up and trying to figure out ways that they can make them be inclusive," says HQ Raleigh cofounder Christopher Gergen, "but they weren't talking with one another." He hadn't heard of WE Labs, for instance, nor had Brown heard of HQ Raleigh. Gergen and others are starting to coordinate nationally with the Forward Cities Collaborative
—an affiliation of organizations and activists in Detroit, Cleveland, New Orleans, and neighboring Durham, NC, that trade ideas on business development in low-income and minority neighborhoods.
"If you're a WeWork—which is in major metro markets like New York and Chicago and San Francisco, Hong Kong, Berlin, et cetera—it has a very different mandate and a very different strategy for where it's going to go," says Gergen. Communities outside the major commercial centers may have different types of businesses, he says. Health care and food and beverage companies are big in the Southeast, for example. HQ Raleigh's tenants include the venture arm of green household products company Seventh Generation, a coffee roaster, and plenty of tech startups.