In Development: Group/Think

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Valley News Issue: July 2015
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A new breed of niche business incubators in the Valley goes beyond the techie-coworking model.

Edgar Olivo is tired of techies hogging all the entrepreneur love.

“There’s this glamorization of entrepreneurs, and usually in that sentence [are words like] ‘tech,’ the ‘next Zuckerberg,’ and ‘finance,’” says Olivo, a financial consultant and dean of the entrepreneurship program at The Office Pile, a coworking space in Phoenix. “No, no, no – entrepreneurs are all around us. If you sold lemonade as a child, you were an entrepreneur.”

The democratization of entrepreneurship in the Valley has ushered in a new crop of specialized business labs. By catering to niche communities, they can maximize their impact in specific populations and help entrepreneurs with similar philosophies.

At SEED SPOT in Phoenix, “the cross-section of social [consciousness] plus entrepreneurship really spoke to me,” says C’pher Gresham, director of entrepreneur initiatives at the nonprofit business incubator. It provides workshops, mentorships and investor-matching for social-impact ventures like Max on Snax, a company that teaches kids healthy eating habits, and Aqwastream, which provides free cold water in public filling stations to discourage the consumption of plastic water bottles. Some ventures are nonprofits, but 85 percent are for-profit. “It’s helping entrepreneurs who want to be that positive change in the world follow their dreams of creating their businesses,” Gresham says.

Courtney Klein founded SEED SPOT three years ago after launching and leaving New Global Citizens, a nonprofit for young people interested in social change. Based on her own experiences and those of the nearly 200 entrepreneurs who have gone through SEED SPOT’s various programs (from two-day workshops that cost $500 to a 14-week full-time program that costs $3,500), Klein says the face of business is changing. “We’re seeing this trend of companies and the next generation and consumers starting to shift their perspective a bit and say, ‘How can we endorse companies that, yes, are profitable, but also do good in the world?’” she says. “Our niche being in social impact is unique. We’re one of a dozen or so in the country and one of two or three that focus on social entrepreneurship and are a nonprofit.”

The Office Pile, founded by real estate veteran Francisco Xavier Aguirre last fall, bills itself as “The First Culturally Diverse Coworking Space in the Nation.” Its membership, philosophy and even the design of its historical building in Phoenix skew Latino (local street art legend Lalo Cota designed its logo, and its walls are covered with Chicano art), but it has partnerships with and members from the Greater Phoenix Black Chamber of Commerce and the LGBTQ community.

“A lot of coworking spaces and incubators are geared toward the tech world. We were like, ‘Wait a minute. We’re the 98 percent,’ You know what I mean?” Aguirre says with a laugh. “There are entrepreneurs from all walks of life.”

Olivo says TOP is unique in its accessibility. “The hot dog stand owner, the landscaper, the house-cleaner. Those are all folks that are independent consultants but don’t see themselves as businesses,” he says. “Let’s get you to think like a business and... then you can start elevating the quality of your life, which has residual results for the community.” Its pricing is also accessible: Memberships start at $90 per month.

With its educational foundation and business curriculum, TOP has evolved from a mere coworking space, though Aguirre eschews the “i” word. “We’re not an ecosystem, we’re a garden. There’s a lot of seeds here,” he says. “We are just a cultivator instead of an incubator.”

Marie Sullivan is getting acquainted with the term. She is CEO of Arizona Women’s Education and Employment, an organization within the federal government’s Small Business Administration that has focused on “changing lives through the dignity of work,” Sullivan says, since 1981. AWEE launched the Arizona Women’s Education and Entrepreneur Center (AWEEc) in Phoenix in February to provide free business classes, workshops, courses and counseling for female entrepreneurs. “We’re new in the business-incubation niche, but we’re not new in moving people forward into employment and helping them stay there.”

These specialized incubators may continue to trend because they are needed, says Alicia Marseille, AWEEc director. “You’re seeing the rise of the freelancers, the entrepreneurs, people that want to work for themselves. It takes a lot of education and some technical assistance to help people do that successfully,” she says. “SBA statistics show that eight out of 10 [businesses] fail in the first five years, so these incubators and resources can help mitigate that.”

Lean In
Do some niche networking at these Valley business incubators.

The Office Pile
2501 N. Seventh St., Phoenix
602-300-9623, theofficepile.com

SEED SPOT
2828 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
602-456-9944, seedspot.org

Arizona Women’s Education and Entrepreneur Center
640 N. First Ave., Phoenix
602-223-4329, aweecenter.org