Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price toured the 224 EcoSpace, which is a social enterprise initiative of parent organization the Conference of Churches. Director and Chief Curator Rev. Dr. Shelley D. Best provided background about the space and talked about its mission and evolution.
NAN PRICE: The organization bought the space on 224 Farmington Avenue in Hartford in 2012. How did you develop the business concept for how the space was going to used?
SHELLEY BEST: The Conference of Churches is a 116-year-old ecumenical organization—like a chamber of commerce for churches. As an organization, we had to shift our approach to having a nonprofit business to having more of a social entrepreneurship mindset.
Originally, we were about 70% state-funded. We knew we had to differentiate funding and start to operate differently. We had to find a way to be grounded and centered as an organization and be more self-sustaining.
We started inviting community in for events when we first located here, because we wanted to have a space that would help and heal people and encourage them get to know each other. Gradually, we developed this model for the EcoSpace, which has three key business units:
- The Collaboration Centre offers retreats, conferences, community groups, community organizing, and consulting around community building.
- The LivingWell Centre provides health and wellness programs and services from massage therapists, aromatherapists, psychotherapists, and yoga and dance instructors. We also have partnerships with other healthcare organizations.
- The Business Growth Centre provides space for entrepreneurs.
When it comes to the three business units, our model is that the 224 EcoSpace is a platform where people can launch their businesses with a lot more legitimacy then they would by working out of their home or a fellowship hall in a church.
By having these business ventures, we’re able to sustain the work of the Conference of Churches and support churches and faith-based leaders without having to depend on them for our sustainability.
NAN: Tell us more about the Business Growth Centre.
SHELLEY: When we developed this business structure, we modeled the Business Growth Centre after The Grove coworking space in New Haven. We thought it would be a more traditional coworking space like that.
What we found was things didn’t evolve the way we expected. The entrepreneurs who started showing up were more visual artists and dancers. Instead of catering to the traditional coworking laptop users, a majority of our entrepreneurs here are primarily health and wellness entrepreneurs. So, we have entrepreneurs who are dance instructors, psychotherapists, and fitness instructors. We hadn’t anticipated those industries being our economic drivers, even though the architecture feeds into that.
We’re still trying to attract the laptop entrepreneur, but it’s interesting that most of the people drawn here like the fact that this represents a place where they can work and create. It’s also a place that supports them living. You can come here and have a lifestyle as opposed to just working at your desk.
Part of why we love this model is, often entrepreneurial spaces attract one type of people—those who might be working in a certain kind of way. But, because we mix with activists and artists of various types as well as business minded people, we think the EcoSpace provides an opportunity for what some would call a “mutation,” where we all grow because we’ve been impacted by the other.
That’s what we think is unique about working here—you’re stretched by encounters with people you might not ordinarily meet. I like that being a part of this kind of community creates an opportunity to make us better people, because we are broader. Here I am a minister, but I can walk down the hall and engage with ballet dancers, social change activists, and aromatherapists all in one day.
NAN: How many entrepreneurs are utilizing the space through the Business Growth Centre?
SHELLEY: I’d say our core entrepreneurs right now are about 75. Then we have another layer of about 25 more nonprofit groups that partner with us and regularly have external programs here. They’re smaller nonprofits or some community organizations like sororities and fraternities that use the space to do programming they ordinarily couldn’t.
NAN: In terms of business growth, what types of resources are available?
SHELLEY: The resources that are available are really the other entrepreneurs who have expertise. We have business coaches and life coaches here in private practice. So, people help each other. We have an attorney here, but she also teaches dance!
NAN: Sounds like there’s a lot of cross pollination.
SHELLEY: Exactly. It’s a community of people who are supporting one another and helping each other grow their businesses.
NAN: What do you enjoy most about working with entrepreneurs and building a community here in Hartford?
SHELLEY: I can’t imagine what it would be like to work in a static setting. Every day there’s someone to talk to about their dreams and visions. And I love that energy of: How do you make something happen?
I can’t imagine living a life where I’m not having those conversations. It’s great to have people who are dreaming and visioning and changing their lives—and I like being a part of it.
NAN: Are all the people working out of 224 EcoSpace from the Hartford area?
SHELLEY: They’re primarily from Greater Hartford, but we have some people who live as far as the shoreline. Some of the entrepreneurs who put on programming here are from all around Connecticut—and even as far as New York.
People from New York enjoy coming here because it’s like breath of fresh air. Their creativity is really highlighted when they come to Connecticut to offer workshops and seminars. I see more people from the city coming in and appreciating the opportunity to perform or teach here.
NAN: How are people finding out about the 224 EcoSpace?
SHELLEY: Most people are finding out about us through social media or word-of-mouth. It’s a community building by different EcoSpace entrepreneurs telling other entrepreneurs: This is a place for you to be.
In terms of Hartford, there are certain connectors and that’s what’s really been making the space grow. People come here for specialized events, so they learn about us by coming to a performance or seminar and then they realize: I could work here too.
NAN: How does the 224 EcoSpace generate revenue?
SHELLEY: Instead of having a business model where we’re operating as traditional real estate people who rent space by square footage; we are more of a co-op model where people rent time. We have a rate for time, which is how people use and share the space. That’s been a way for people to start their businesses and it’s been a way for us to sustain the operations of the Conference of Churches.
NAN: What you see for the future of the space?
SHELLEY: Within the next year, we expect to be building out a café. We have a break room, but we’re going to be building a commercial space here as well.
We’re also looking to increase our use of technology. Our goal down the road is to make this more of a “smart” building. So, as we increase in revenue we want equip the place with more technology to make it a more comfortable and efficient space for people.
Also, we’re looking at using solar energy so this EcoSpace can actually be more earth-friendly and ecologically sound. We have a community garden on the rear of the property and our vision is to one day use the food that’s grown here in the cafe. We’re really looking at this place being more of an ecosystem.
We’re also seeing a lot more in the area of the arts happening here with more performances. And we’re seeing more entrepreneurs have a chance to come into the space and grow and change their lives.
NAN: What’s with the rubber ducky?
SHELLEY: Local artist and innovator Tao LaBossiere of Art of Tao LaBossiere gave us this story about the rubber duck when he gifted us with his painting “Unsinkable Spirit.” The duck is unsinkable. It continues to press on. We decided that would be our mascot here, that no matter what comes we are going to keep going and we’re going to have joy. We are going to support each other as a community. That’s why we call ourselves an “unsinkable society.” By connecting with one another we all can stay afloat.