Forging a Business
With support from the Center for Entrepreneurship, a student venture offers innovative shared workspace for nonprofits and compatible start-ups.
Self-starter Robert Bart ’14 strives to make a difference in the world. The former high school teacher has always been busy creating and innovating. While teaching social studies, he maintained a number of side projects: running a Congressional campaign, organizing an international white-water kayaking expedition, and fixing up old cars to resell.
“After my first year of law school, I decided I wanted to start a business,” Bart said. “My worldview is more in line with a nonprofit perspective, but I also really appreciate that private business is able to do an incredible amount to help people, so I started looking for a way to combine the two.”
Bart’s ambitions coincided with the launch of the Center for Entrepreneurship, which serves the three schools of Lewis & Clark. Managing Director Michael Kaplan and Associate Professor of Psychology Brian Detweiler-Bedell, the center’s academic director, have been working to help students and recent alumni translate their knowledge and experience into entrepreneurial success. Bart, together with Jeffrey Crosswhite ’14, Thomas Sunderland ’14, and Howard Voght ’14, was able to take part in one of the center’s key early initiatives, the 2013 Venture Competition.
More than 40 teams of students and recent alumni participated in the competition, working throughout the year developing business plans with the chance of winning $30,000 in start-up funds. Eleven teams were selected to further refine their business plans with the help of a small amount of seed funding, a mentor, and four day-long workshops covering many aspects of entrepreneurship. They then competed in Pitch Day, presenting their plans to a panel of judges made up of business leaders and entrepreneurs from the Portland community.
“My worldview is more in line with a nonprofit perspective, but I also really appreciate that private business is able to do an incredible amount to help people, so I started looking for a way to combine the two.”Robert Bart ’14
Bart, Crosswhite, Sunderland, and Voght’s team was one of the five selected to compete in the finals. They received additional funding and coaching before participating in a final round of pitches. At the culmination of the competition, said Detweiler-Bedell, “the finalists’ ventures were not simply ideas. Rather, each team had formed a business entity and was operating to some extent.”
Oregon is home to over 20,000 registered nonprofits. In one month alone, 500 new limited liability corporations filed with the state. In Bart’s view, the key to success for these new organizations and entrepreneurs is to build relationships that will allow them to grow.
Enter Forge Portland, a cowork space for nonprofits and start-ups with a social or civic mission. Forge Portland provides an opportunity for organizations to accelerate their progress toward their goals by reducing overhead costs, pooling resources, and creating a vibrant and collaborative atmosphere that maximizes productivity and work satisfaction.
The space is ideal for organizations and entrepreneurs just starting out, said Bart. Forge Portland is targeting one- or two-person ventures or those in the process of launching. These organizations typically do not need employees to put in a 40-hour workweek, Bart said, and can best utilize a shared workspace.
“It’s like a gym membership,” Bart said. For a monthly fee, an organization gets access to a desk and any other tools needed to operate effectively. Because the common spaces, amenities, and services are shared, Forge Portland can keep its operational costs low, which translates into saving for tenants.
Forge Portland has three different workspace options available through different membership packages. The Hot Desk membership provides organizations and businesses access to a desk, internet, high-end printer, copier, fax, secure locker, conference room, bike storage, and kitchen facilities. The Private Desk membership guarantees that the organization will have access to the same desk every time they visit the space, in addition to the features of the Hot Desk membership. The Private Office membership includes a reserved office. Two of the private offices are large enough to fit up to four people.
In addition to the cost-saving benefits, Forge Portland offers tenants an opportunity to grow their start-ups in an incubator setting modeled after the offices of Google and other tech companies.
In addition to the cost-saving benefits, Forge Portland offers tenants an opportunity to grow their start-ups in an incubator setting modeled after the offices of Google and other tech companies. “Being in an office space that is actively promoting and sharing ideas is powerful,” Bart said, noting that organizations with similar values are likely to mentor one another.
Another benefit: Working in the same space as professionals with specialized knowledge in, say, design, accounting, or law. Bart says many people starting businesses do not themselves have expertise in these fields, which can be a big barrier to success.
Bart says Forge Portland will also make it easier for tenants to operate their businesses by providing them templates or models to consider in their own business plans. He is working with a nonprofit accountant to create a flow chart for small businesses. “The flow chart will make is easy to do simple accounting. It will also give tenants a good sense of when it might be cost-effective to hire a professional,” he said. “They will be able to determine if they would be spending their money wisely.”
Bart said getting the right mix of nonprofits and businesses in the space will be important for Forge Portland in its first year. “The idea is that companies will grow stronger and more efficient by virtue of being in our space, and that the space will become better as our tenants grow and expand,” he said.
This mix is also critical to Forge Portland’s efforts to build a reputation for doing good in the community. Bart said Forge Portland is hoping to attract tenants that provide a “value product through their mission statement, or want to be socially or civically minded.” He does not think that will be tough in Portland. “That is the exact group of people who are starting businesses right now,” he said. “Our community embraces the idea that we should have a social purpose.”
Bart has high praise for the Venture Competition, especially Pitch Day. “Presenting ideas to groups of people is a big part of a business,” he said. “You have to test your ideas to learn how to process them and make them better.”
“The entire Lewis & Clark community was able to innovate and collaborate for greater impact. When you look at entrepreneurship through this lens, you begin to see the opportunity we have here.”Brian Detweiler-Bedell
The winner of the 2013 competition and recipient of $20,000 was the Portland Mushroom Company, which seeks to provide locally produced oyster mushrooms for local restaurants and food markets through an urban mushroom cultivation method that eliminates plastic waste. RootED Recovery, a clinical mentoring program for adults with eating disorders, received $10,000.
Detweiler-Bedell said “competition” was something of a misnomer. (The program is now called the Incubator+Launch Seed Fund.) “The experience emphasized collaboration and mentoring rather than competition. The entire Lewis & Clark community was able to innovate and collaborate for greater impact. When you look at entrepreneurship through this lens, you begin to see the opportunity we have here,” Detweiler-Bedell said. “I think our liberal arts college, law school, and graduate school can out-collaborate anyone.”
As for Bart, he is hoping Forge Portland will be the launching point for the collaboration and entrepreneurial efforts of the city’s nonprofit community.