Pictured above: CoWorking Night meets each Wednesday to support innovators with lectures, workshops and networking. Mayor Tommy Battle talks about importance of mentors during a recent December gathering
The daunting challenge, Mayor Tommy Battle tells the group, “is to bring in the smartest and the best and the brightest.”
On this December evening, that challenge was met. From 16 years old and into their 60s, more than 150 people gifted with infinite imaginations and bright minds gathered at CoWorking Night, a hub of connectivity for entrepreneurs and small business owners.
Over the past 60-plus years, Huntsville has attracted the smartest and best and brightest, particularly on large teams, tackling enormous challenges such as manned space travel.
Entrepreneurship is typically a bold, individual effort. CoWorking Night provides the opportunity for learning and networking to achieve success. The City of Huntsville has supported its growth, and led innovations such as business incubators to provide facilities and support for entrepreneurs.
“The city has certainly helped by embracing CoWorking Night,” said event co-founder Chris Beaman. “It helps simply by the mayor coming to speak and being accessible to us. Our millennial audience is longing to be connected to the city.”
The accessibility means that the mayor faces some tough questioning. To wit: What about incentives for entrepreneurs?
“We don’t have a lot of cash incentives, to be honest,” he said. “There are a lot of incentives because we have put together a community people want to come into, that you can recruit the people you want to come in to work in your company, and get them to live here.”
In other words, the City of Huntsville’s overall investment in being an ideal place to live, work and play for all residents is its greatest gift to the growing entrepreneur community.
We have a motto: Learn, connect, collaborate…These are professionals who are looking to build ideas together. That’s the kind of environment we’re trying to foster.”
John Cummings is one such entrepreneur. He is a UAH graduate and the Chief Technology Officer for arriv.io, which has created an app enabling users to pay parking fees through their wireless devices.
“I come here (to CoWorking Night) for three reasons,” Cummings said. “First, for ideas you can implement. Second, there is excellent feedback from others on your design and more.
“And third,” he continued, “talent. There’s a lot of talent and you can build on from those opportunities. It’s a great talent pool.”
“That’s right,” Beaman said. “We have a motto: Learn, connect, collaborate. That speaks to the three broader tenets, which are education – we’re a professional, continuing education environment – connecting and collaborating. These are professionals who are looking to build ideas together. That’s the kind of environment we’re trying to foster.”
The benefits are far-reaching. Some of the participants utilize these assets for their small businesses. Others use them “to help on more innovative levels within their ‘real’ jobs,” Beaman said.
CoWorking Night arose from a simple idea within a clique of people for whom “hack” is not a four-letter word.
Soon after Beaman moved from the talent-rich Boston area in early 2015, he and co-founder Larry Mason organized a “hack-a-thon,” a competition held in many high-tech cities where, as Beaman put it, “a whole bunch of nerds get together and build apps over the course of an evening.”
There were 50 or so participants, and they clearly wanted something beyond a one-time event.
Thus CoWorking Night was launched in April 2015. Organized by New Leaf Digital, there have been more than 80 such nights, growing from the small nucleus to triple-digit attendance, 900-plus members and some 28 member organizations who hold workshops at the events.
A spin-off group called 3210 has been created, targeted toward the business class — investment brokers, lawyers, bankers, who might partner with the entrepreneurs.
The City of Huntsville’s drive and commitment will be a boon to the entrepreneurs, and vice versa, Beaman believes.
“Folks will go and create new businesses out of the ideation that will happen at CoWorking, and that’s good economic development,” he said.
“With this social fabric, hundreds of these people are all becoming friends with each other and relying on each other and marrying each other, to the extent they probably won’t leave Huntsville. We’re affecting the retainment of millennials,” Beaman said.
“We’re building this social fabric that will be very attractive to people looking at Huntsville. And we’re working at a broader leadership level with people in Silicon Valley and Boston and other places, to tell people in other states what we do in Huntsville, Alabama.”