Gathered around a large, sun-drenched table in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco on a Friday afternoon are financial advisers, activists, marketers, designers, coders, lawyers, and a half-dozen more local entrepreneurs. There are representatives from the microlending empire Kiva, social justice organization MercyCorps, and a solar-energy company based in India. At the table’s head is David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, widely considered to be the bible of social entrepreneurship, who casually addresses the group as they tuck into deli sandwiches and takeout sushi.
This is not some kind of exclusive golden-circle conference. This is a typical day at Hub SoMa, a 8600-square-foot shared workspace for socially focused enterprises, where a visitor at any hour of the day will witness similar exchanges between the several dozen startups, business incubators, and non-profits that inhabit the space. And today, acknowledges managing director Alex Michel, as he grins and gestures to the remains of a few white wine bottles left on a counter, you may also see a few hangovers from a massive opening party that rocked the space the night before.
The Hub SoMa is part of a greater organization called The Hub, both a physical space and a virtual network now found in 12 cities and five continents worldwide. This includes two chapters in the Bay Area: A second Hubis located in Berkeley, in the supersustainable David Brower Center. Working as managing director for both Bay Area Hubs is Michel, an excitable multi-tasker dressed in a black zip-up top who peppers his sentences with detailed references ranging from Israeli history to molecular biology to Impressionist painting. Like many of the Hub’s members, he was born entrepreneurial, launching a company out of school for international student travel and going on to found development programs in Africa and Asia. His last organization before the Hub is what he describes as a “boutique Peace Corps” program.
Michel and members of the Hub’s executive board also produce the San Francisco-based SOCAP, which has been exploring the social capital of markets at a local conference for 10 years, and run GoodCapital, an expansion fund for social enterprise. And in fact, says Michel, they’re using that experience to make the Hub not only a social resource but also an economic one: They’re exploring the possibility of offering debt-servicing, meaning that members can borrow from and invest in other members. And outside investors will soon be able to invest in the Hub Bay Area as a seed stage capital fund.
DIVERSITY IS KEY
Like many co-working spaces, firms and individuals become members of the Hub Bay Area to take part in activities and use the facilities. By way of demonstrating the Hub’s pricing structure, Michel offers a familiar example: “The Hub works like a ZipCar model.” A basic fee of $25 a month gets an individual access to all Hub events. $295 a month gives unlimited office access. Private offices are rentable for higher fees for six months at a time, spaces currently occupied by some of the largest tenants at the Hub like Change.org, a portal for raising awareness and action for social and environmental causes.
But unlike many co-working spaces, the application process is rigorous, and they have turned companies down. “We’ve had some companies where we just said to them, we don’t think you’re going to get a lot out of here,” says Michel. The Hub must maintain a mix of members who not only bring value to the organization but who can also provide value to each other. That’s why there are lawyers who specialize in social enterprise working near startups that have questions about funding. If someone needs to find an expert in, say, virtual currencies, they only need to tap the shoulder of someone working nearby. “They’re literally bumping into people who can help them,” says Michel. Or they can work together to help others: After the Haitian earthquake, the Hub’s members organized a one-day conference to discuss viable solutions and action plans for aid.
BUILT FOR SHARING
With help from local design thinkers at IDEO and the direction of architect Teri Flynn of Flynn, Craig and Grant, the Hub configured a space that allowed groups to to have privacy, but not too much privacy. A large flexible room is filled with workstations that almost imperceptibly transition into a series of kitchen tables (the kitchen is definitely the heart of the space, Michel notes). A few privacy stations for calls or small meetings can be reserved using dry-erase markers on the Hub’s glass writable walls, found (and used) throughout the space. Furnishings like FLOR and Steelcase were picked for their sustainability, and much of the desks and tables were made by the Hub’s team, using their soon-to-be partner, TechShop, the DIY/tool-rental facility that will open in the fall in a space adjacent to the Hub.
Another adjacent space offers a way for the Hub to share what’s going on inside with the greater community. A massive art gallery curated by San Francisco’s legendary Intersection for the Arts features cultural investigations with a social and environmental focus. Installed in the gallery for the launch event was the show Let’s Talk of a System, which featured works ranging from April Banks’ rice sculptures that addressed hunger and poverty, to Laura Parker’s Taste of Place, which pairs soil samples from around Northern California with tastings of what grows in them.
CENTER OF INNOVATION
The Hub is not only a center of innovation in itself, it’s also uniquely positioned within an emerging, larger center of innovation. A section of San Francisco’s quickly-changing SoMa neighborhood is being developed by Forest City Ratner into a new kind of tech campus that hopes to lure technology companies like Google and Apple back into high-density, urban environments. Schools, services, and housing are all part of a large-scale sustainable plan that will allow residents to live and work flexibly within a four-acre radius. And the Hub is quite literally right in the middle of it.
In fact, that’s another thing that’s striking about the Hub’s physical location: It occupies extremely prime real estate on the first floor of the San Francisco Chronicle building, space that was vacated as the newspaper’s staff shrunk. The symbolism of this fleet of agile startups supplanting an aging, broken industry is not lost on Michel. In a way, it’s like the Hub is also anchored here in the hopes that they might attract a few members from any traditional company in need of a new direction. Just a few hours here will showing them that their traditional silos and suits and bureaucracy don’t work: There is another way.
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