The Rise of Black-Owned Co-Work Spaces

On February 1, 1960, four students marched to 134 South Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina, through the doors of F.W. Woolworth restaurant, and sat at the open counter to order lunch. But they were hungry in the wrong place.

There would be no lunch served to these young black students in the whites-only restaurant that day.

For black people in the early 20th century, whites-only sanctioned spaces like theaters, bathrooms, and stores were off limits. Violation of state-sanctioned discrimination resulted in physical violence, arrests, or worse. Today, over 50 years since Congress passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation, access to safe spaces for black people remains a barrier amid growing gentrification of historically black neighborhoods in urban cities and the ongoing practice of white people calling the police on black patrons at Starbucks or barbecuing in a public park.

Enter the black-owned co-working space.  At least 56 of these spaces have popped up in urban communities around the country over the last decade with a particular focus on inclusive innovation, community building, and safety for black patrons.

That’s a small fraction of the over 4,000 co-working spaces that exist in some form across the country, supporting over 500,000 freelancers, startup companies, consultants, and emerging founders. According to experts at the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC), memberships at coworking spaces will double to well over a million, with physical coworking environments reaching over 6,000 nationwide by 2022.

The 56 black-owned spaces emerged adjacent to this growth trend, providing more than conference rooms, Wi-Fi, and limitless coffee: they are built to give black people a safe space to find themselves in the work of innovation where they have largely been excluded. Data from a 2016 study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation revealed that native-born African Americans comprise of just half a percent of US-born innovators—despite being over 13 percent of the overall population.

Aaron Saunders, a computer scientist and owner of a mobile app development business, opened the Inclusive Innovation Incubator in 2017. Housed at Howard University in Washington, DC, the 8,000 square-foot incubator space is one of the first to open on the campus of a black college in the country. At $200 per month, entrepreneurs get a desk and access to special events, as well as a variety of classes on coding, app development, or growing a startup—most of which are taught by other technologists of color.

“[Entrepreneurs know] that when they come into this space the instructor is going to look like them, “says Saunders. “This helps when [previously] they didn’t have a safe space to work through the challenges of taking their firm to the next level.”  “That’s where we come in and own that effort, “ Saunders said. “Having a space that is black-owned and supported by and attended mostly by people of color, it is a good thing.

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