Building a coworking community

By Judy Newman, Wisconsin State Journal

Gregory St. Fort is a New Yorker, through and through.

Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, and all his family is still there.

A graduate of the New York City College of Technology, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), St. Fort, 29, started several companies within five years in New York City, most recently, LetsKeepBuilding, a marketing firm.

But thanks to his girlfriend, who landed a job as a toy engineer at American Girl in Middleton, St. Fort moved to Madison a year and a half ago and quickly connected with the entrepreneurial community.

By November 2014, St. Fort had joined 100state, at 30 W. Mifflin St., an entrepreneurial gathering space that calls itself “Wisconsin’s largest coworking community,” and in September, he took the helm as executive director.

It’s a place where members can rent space ranging from a laptop-sized spot at a long table to an individual, private office.

QUESTION: How did you get the entrepreneurial bug? Did something happen in your life that sparked your interest?

ANSWER: Different parts of my life pushed me into entrepreneurship. My first taste of it was in college, promoting events. My goal was to meet people and to try new things. It became more important to me when my dad lost his job during the recession. I wanted to figure out how I could avoid the same fate in my career. Then I found my passion and wanted to build a lifestyle that allowed me to work on things that mean something to me, things I can be proud of.

Q: When 100state opened in June 2013 — then located at 100 State St. — the idea was that it would be more than just a place for people to share space and work alongside others. How big is 100state now and what are its goals?

A: We have about 220 members. We want to keep growing, to see how much we can cultivate entrepreneurship, with people following their passion.

Our goals include creating more of an educational system for people who want to be entrepreneurs. We plan to hold classes in 2016 teaching people how to (write computer) code, and to hold workshops on developing soft skills. That could include etiquette on how to speak to corporate clients and how to handle adversity.

We also want to bring people together to solve problems and take action — not just with starting businesses and nonprofits but also economic and social issues in the Madison area. We want to continue to cultivate entrepreneurship and social change in Madison, based on what our members believe.

Q: 100state also holds group events. Can you tell us about some of them?

A: We hold fun-and-games nights to strengthen collaboration, and we bring in speakers such as venture capitalists. We try to meet our members’ different needs.

We hold weekly brainstorming sessions and town hall meetings, where members can give updates on what they’re doing and look for help.

I think people just want to be around people who are like-minded so they can get life support and connections to fulfill their passions.

Q: Some people may think that a coworking space, like 100state, is just a place where people hang out and play games or simply socialize. Is that what happens?

A: There’s a lot of work getting done at 100state. We have success stories. Export Abroad, a company that does data analytics for manufacturing companies, was at the first White House demo day and met the president. It was a really good thing for Madison as a city, let alone for 100state.

We have Redox, which started at 100state and now has offices across the street — Redox just raised $3.5 million from investors. Without 100state, that doesn’t happen.

Meghan Blake-Horst, a 100state member, started MadCity Bazaar. Arch Virtual, a virtual reality experience, is based here. Our member Joy Tang is CEO of Markable, an app that turns photos into shopping experiences by telling you where you can buy items, like clothing, in a photo. She also collaborates with others here; that’s what it’s all about.

With Grow Madison, Matt Nelson helps experts and freelancers teach what they do. Will Green is with Off the Block Salsa. Henry Schwartz, co-founder of MobCraft beer, is a 100state member, so we’re coming out with a new 100state beer with MobCraft. It’s going to launch Dec. 5 at our annual 100thanks event.

We have people of all backgrounds, doing awesome stuff. They’re definitely not wasting their time.

Q: How does someone become a member of 100state and how much does it cost?

A: We interview people before they become members. We ask them: What are you working on? How can you help the community? What are you passionate about?

If this person is like-minded or we know he or she will be a great contributor to the community then we want them as a member.

The cost starts at $75 a month, which gives a member access to space and all the programs.

Q: One of the stereotypes about the entrepreneurial community, or at least, about tech entrepreneurs, is that it is made up of young, white men. Is that the case with members of 100state?

A: This is probably the most diverse experience you’re going to have in Madison, like THE most.

When you walk into 100state, you may see Joy Tan — definitely not a white male; she is an Asian female. Export Abroad’s founder is from Rwanda. One of our best coders is Fred Willis; he is African American. He’s helped a lot of members with their projects.

You’re going to see men, women, black, white, Hispanic and Asian. If you’re passionate about doing something, this is the place to be.

Q: How does the entrepreneurial scene here in the Madison area compare with the situation in New York City?

A: While New York City’s entrepreneurial scene is more developed, Madison’s entrepreneurial scene is new and fresh. Madison’s scene is definitely close-knit. We have an opportunity to build together.

Q: Startups and entrepreneurism are a big trend around the country right now. But is it possible this is a bubble that could burst in a couple of years?

A: From a local standpoint in Madison, the future of entrepreneurship is going to be based on the amount of success that a certain amount of companies have. When you have successes like Redox, if it’s creating job opportunities for people, if they’re aware of any social contributions they can do along their path, and if development is causing change for the better, then you gain support.

Entrepreneurship is a high-risk move, no matter what. But if you gain support, it becomes sustainable.