On Friday morning, a financial literacy trainer and an aspiring marketing professional sat across from each other, discussing ideas. A wellness company owner worked at a laptop just a few feet away, her toddler emulating her on his own (broken) laptop. Nearby were coffee and snacks and a professional office manager, ready to assist with any particular needs. Around the corner, a local nonprofit executive took a meeting with a book author, exploring collaboration opportunities.
All of these business owners were women of color. All normally worked elsewhere, scattered around the Fox Cities. Many had never met before today. But for this day, they’re coworkers in a space created just for their entrepreneurial energy.
This space, in a cozy basement office space at 36 Broad Street in Oshkosh, was hosting a one-week trial of a part-time coworking space that was free to use and catered specifically for entrepreneurs of color. About 20 people, mostly freelance workers and entrepreneurs, utilized the space during one or more of the three blocks of time, four hours each, that it was open. Even Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri stopped by on the first day.
It was successful enough that a donor called and offered funding for two more weeks.
The space was organized by Fit Oshkosh, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing racial literacy as well as helping business owners of color succeed, with support and funding from UW Extension and Prospera Credit Union.
Fit Oshkosh has been conducting interviews of Black business owners around the Fox Valley for the past six months to better understand their needs and the challenges they face. Executive Director Tracey Robertson said a couple recurring themes kept coming up.
“One of them was social capital,” Robertson said. “People really wanted to spend time together, get to know other entrepreneurs. People didn’t know each other. And there was a lot of conversation about urgency. People were like, ‘We need these things now. We need access to technology. We need access to resources. We need these things now.’ And oftentimes the way the systems are set up, you have to go through some program, you have to participate in some workshop, before you can get access to capital, access to resources. And so urgency came up a lot.”
While UW Extension, which is also Fit Oshkosh’s partner in the Black business owner research, is “crunching the data,” Robertson said, she decided to go ahead and address those urgent needs by forming a one-week pilot program of a part-time coworking space in a shared conference-room-style space in the basement of the building where Fit Oshkosh has its office.
“We could provide a space where people can feel safe and comfortable, where people can get to know each other and exchange ideas, where people can have access to technology. And so that’s why we opened it,” she said.
Robertson, who also operates the Regional People of Color Business Association, sought support and got buy-in from UW Extension and Prospera Credit Union.
“The (Prospera Credit Union) manager, Matt Eldred, had been attending a lot of our Regional People of Color Business Association events,” Robertson said. “And so when we said we wanted to do this, we reached out to him by phone and he, in the moment, said yes. He would fund it. He would support it. He thought it was important. So he showed up and supported this work.”
The funding is supporting a staffer for the space as well as other amenities like snacks and coffee.
What is coworking?
“Coworking” is a growing movement across the United States. The concept is that small businesses, entrepreneurs and independent contractors can share a space and office amenities like wifi, internet access, conference rooms, printers, office furniture and a kitchen, and save on overhead costs associated with renting and maintaining a full office space. These businesses also avoid the risk of locking into a long-term lease.
Most coworking spaces charge a monthly fee to join. Members can choose to pay a small fee for access to a desk in an open space, or a higher fee for a private office.
The coworking concept is growing so fast that WeWork, which owns and operates coworking spaces in cities around the world, is going public at a valuation of $25 billion.
There is only one other coworking space in Oshkosh, Rise and Grind, which also features an onsite cafe. The cafe is free to visit, but the coworking space charges a monthly fee. Rise and Grind also has a space in Green Bay. There are also a handful of coworking spaces in Appleton.
These spaces remain inaccessible to some entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurs of color, for whom even the lower costs of coworking are still prohibitive.
Yet the need to work around other like-minded entrepreneurs is real.
“A lot of our cafes here have become hubs for people to connect and do business, but people, have said they want a safe space where they can chat and share and get to know each other,” Robertson said.
It’s About Collaboration
“The more people you’re around, a more diverse group, then you learn from them,” said Ivy Casarez, 40, an independent financial literacy educator who works with Freedom Equity Group. She lives in Appleton and normally works at an office in Green Bay.
Casarez said she decided to commute the other direction to Oshkosh “just to be around people that look like me. In my office I’m the only Black person, and so I like to be around other people and share ideas, share failures and successes.”
She said she also just wants to be part of this new endeavor.
“I’m working as well as I’m giving back.I’m supporting this space, and supporting my community by being here,” she said.
Casarez said she intends to use the space “as long as it’s open. I have a choice of working at home or in the office or here. So as long as it’s available and I don’t have outside appointments, this is going to be my office space.”
Casarez spent much of the day Friday chatting with Sekile Newsome, a student at UW-Oshkosh who recently relocated from Houston and who plans on starting her own marketing and branding firm upon graduation.
“I just met her, and she’s looking to do the same thing (I am doing),” Casarez said. “And she doesn’t know what direction to go or how to start. So now we’re connecting. She does marketing. So she can help me with marketing. So now we’re going to connect and grow that way and grow the community and bring more entrepreneurs. A lot of people would love to do it.”
“For me, the advantage (of coworking) is the resources,” said Newsome, 27, who worked in property management for six years before going back to school for business and marketing. “Because it’s like they say, two heads are always better than one. So if I don’t know something, and I can reach out and ask somebody, that’s beneficial to me, and they’re right here in my face, rather than sending an email, waiting, Googling and not knowing if the information is actually accurate. I like that the most. I think it’s just vital for the thought process to be around different people who are doing different things and that may just may spark a new idea that you may not have normally had.”
Fit Oshkosh board of directors member Angie Lee was also working in the space on Friday for the wellness company she owns with her best friend, and normally operates from home.
“I think being able to come to a space where I feel welcome and safe” is the primary advantage for Lee. “Especially looking around, seeing other women of color be empowered is really fueling, encouraging. I think that I would meet a lot of people that we can bounce ideas and network and connect … I think this type of space could lead to a lot of great impact in our community, and with other entrepreneurs, or other work professionals.”
As a board member of Fit Oshkosh, Lee said the coworking space fits the group’s mission perfectly.
“I think our mission is all about empowering people in marginalized communities and this type of space can really elevate people and provide access to spaces,” she said. “I think that the other coworking spaces in town might be inaccessible to certain people. This aligns with our mission of providing that type of access as well as the space, the social infrastructure for everyone.”
Notably, next to Lee as she worked was her toddler, pecking away at a laptop she had set up for him so he could “work” too. That’s one of the ideas Robertson has for expansion of the coworking space.
“We’re also thinking about having a day specifically to ‘mompreneurs,’ so that kids could be here too and mompreneurs can engage and collaborate,” Robertson said. She said there are plans to “make it more accessible and bring a printer down and maybe buy another laptop. We’d love to expand it.”
For the next two weeks, the space is open Wednesdays from 4 to 8 pm, and Thursdays and Fridays from 8 am to noon. Robertson is seeking grants and donations to extend it beyond those two weeks, and expand the hours.
“We’re thinking about expanding it to Mondays,” Robertson said. “That’s a big ask. ‘Are you open Mondays?’ So we’re really looking to do that.”
Lee said longer-term coworking spaces is part of a broader vision for Fit Oshkosh.
“We are currently working on a project to bring a community center to Oshkosh and that would be our hope, to provide a safe space for multiple purposes, and coworking being one of them,” she said. “I think the vision is still being tweaked and we’re still working on it. But ultimately, that would be an actualized dream, to bring a space that is inclusive, and diverse, and accessible.”
Until then, anyone is welcome to use the current space at 36 Broad Street during its open hours. Just take the elevator to the basement and you can’t miss it.
This article has been updated to reflect the correct schedule for the coworking space, and to clarify that it is UW-Extension on the UW Fond du Lac campus that is the partner in the Black business research, not UW Fond du Lac as was initially reported.