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A Look at Diversity in Charlotte's Growing Coworking Community

Coworking Connections

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There's certainly no shortage of desk space for freelancers and budding entrepreneurs in Charlotte. The rapid growth of coworking spaces in the city has ushered in a startup mentality that can be felt across the city.

For a (usually) small monthly fee, coworking spaces offer ambiance, community, networking opportunities and access to resources that have the potential to help founders and organizations grow solid companies and perhaps even jobs within our communities.

The benefits of physical space for autonomy are clear: A study conducted by The Harvard Business Review explains that "unlike a traditional office, coworking spaces consist of members who work for a range of different companies, ventures, and projects. Because there is little direct competition or internal politics, they don't feel they have to put on a work persona to fit in. Working amidst people doing different kinds of work can also make one's own work identity stronger."

While trendy and perhaps useful, the presence of coworking spaces isn't a one-size-fits-all that helps with the obstacles some entrepreneurs face in starting and growing their business within our city limits. For women, people of color and those hailing from under-resourced communities, accessibility doesn't automatically commence once they've secured a desk in a coworking space.

Earlier this year, Joanna Bailey, founder of the exclusively female coworking space Coterie Company, leased out 6,000 square feet in Packard Place in Uptown.

Bailey's goals for Coterie Co., described as "a luxury co-working concept for businesswomen and female community leaders," is reportedly to build out the company's headquarters in Charlotte, possibly in the North End or near the developing River End district.

But is all that necessary? I spoke with a few local founders in the coworking community to get their take on whether these spaces have a responsibility to address the needs of affinity groups and if their coworking experience has met their expectations on breaking through barriers.

Haley Bohon, founder of SkillPop, community-driven in-person education classes, moved her team of employees from her kitchen table and into a much more formal and collaborative setting at Hygge (pronounced Hoo-gah) Coworking West on Remount Road over the last year. For Haley and her team, it was important that they be in a space that reflects the business world.

"Hygge has gender and racial diversity, a decent range of ages, and a [natural] gravitation toward diverse perspectives and life experiences," she explains. "If we were to raise investment or step our game up and be in the big leagues, that wouldn't happen in an all-women support group ... I don't think you can solely exist in those silos."

Haley derives support as a female founder from outside experiences. She meets monthly with a women's breakfast group for mentoring and idea-exchange with other women founders.

Will Featherstone, who is African-American, has rented a desk out at Industry Coworking in the AvidXchange Music Factory for two years to run his creative consulting business.

He appreciates the organic connections he makes within the space and feels that it meets what he's looking for in terms of meeting other entrepreneurs and having access to the greater creative community.

Like Bohon, Featherstone doesn't feel the need for space to be set aside for any underserved or marginalized group, but does believe outside organizations can and should be responsible for meeting those specific needs.

The argument for affinity-group-based coworking spaces has little to do with self-identification and much more about whether certain groups feel comfortable with discussing challenges and understanding culture-specific problems. Quite simply, where one decides to set up shop boils down to choice for each individual entrepreneur and their perceived needs.

"There is a power in allowing people to come together in the way they feel comfortable," shares Chris Moxley, co-founder of apparel line 704 Shop which operates out of Hygge's Uptown location.

"The biggest selling point of a coworking space is who is around you. It's supposed to be an incubator where you can talk to other business owners and share ideas and resources and networks."

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