Energy. That’s my first impression as I walk into 1871, the much-anticipated coworking space for digital entrepreneurs. Opening its doors May 2 in Chicago, 1871 is more than just a coworking space. As an entrepreneurial equivalent of the Silk Road, it’s an intersection of digital routes, trades and capabilities; the perfect blend of startup chemistry designed to drive unprecedented growth and innovation.
“This place is going to provide a lot of possibilities for people to interact, for sparks to occur, for juxtapositions of people and ideas that wouldn’t have otherwise met, and it’s at those intersections where really good innovation occurs,” says Nick Rosa, managing director of Sandbox Industries, whose Exelerate labs recently announced will hold its summer accelerator program at 1871.
Reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright designs, the dark, narrow corridor of the historic Merchandise Mart opens into a wide, bright 50,000-square-foot modern space. As a multifunctional blend of styles, startups, ethnicities and fashion apparel, 1871’s rugged industrial design features spa-style water dispensers, graffiti-painted walls and writeboard glass dividers, and accommodates collaborative work spaces, private offices, classrooms and large conference spaces. Add some of the most sought-after technologists and entrepreneurs in Chicago and you get pure entrepreneurial and creative energy.
“The collaborative work-space environment here is unparalleled—you have legends walking the halls, GrubHub guys, Viewpoints and Groupon guys. I’m happy it’s here now because I will certainly use it for anything that I cofound in the future, ” says Genevieve Thiers, cofounder of Sittercity.com, a website that connects customers with babysitters. “I wish 1871 was around when I started Sitter City. It would have greatly accelerated our growth.”
A big supporter of women in technology, Thiers gracefully jokes about how she’s looking forward to getting mani-pedis with the other startup ladies at 1871. And yes, women-owned businesses such as Cheeky Chicago and Contact Karma are represented amongst the 65 startups accepted.
Erica Bethe Levin, cofounder of Cheeky Chicago—an online magazine for, by and about the cosmopolitan woman—touts the support system at 1871. “This is the first space that’s a hub: the universities and management schools are all here. Everyone’s common goal is for all of us to succeed,” says Levin.
The common theme is that this is the place to be. “I don’t have much time, but I can’t afford to not be here,” says Maureen Wozniak, cofounder of Contact Karma, a website where business people can find recommended companies and offers.
Christopher Jaeger, founder and CEO of RentStuff.com moved from Tennessee to be part of 1871. He’s only been here a week and is beaming with excitement. “This gives us the ability to connect with resources, such as developers; and talk to local businesses, mentors and advisors. All of that is going to be easier from a space like this. And all that being in a city like Chicago will get our product out there a lot faster.”
I spend the morning talking to residents, neighbors, investors and visitors. Unlike many of the people I met in my corporate career who dreaded going to the office, the 1871 residents all want to be here, with each other, with other aspiring entrepreneurs. I’m with Mark Lawrence, founder of SpotHero.com, a parking reservation system for those hard-to-get city spots, when he runs into a buddy who helped build their first website a year and a half ago. “It’s cool! Everybody is here in one spot,” says Lawrence.
The name “1871” was inspired by the period of rapid innovation that followed immediately after The Great Chicago Fire of that year, when leading engineers, designers and builders came together to build a new city.
And now Chicago’s digital engineers are coming together again to build a city—at 1871.
A word of warning, if we’re looking back on history: Chicago rose itself from the ashes of a fire, but the drive to succeed and avoid becoming the second city also led to nepotism and corruption. The Columbian expo buildings were built too fast and crumbled soon after. What followed the fire was a long history of political corruption, a city divided between North and South and much ongoing political strife.
So I hope the new tech Chicago is a city built for the right reasons, built to last and built united. I hope we don’t build a city that only supports a certain type of technology or a particular type of entrepreneurship—one that favors only the friends of those with the keys to venture capital. True innovation, seeing it and appreciating it, takes work and commitment to keep an open door and an open mind. Let’s not build yet another divided city.