A Look At CSI’s Social, Green, Coworking Ways (Upstart Business Journal)

Ahead of the coworking curve

The Centre for Social Innovation got its start in 2004 in Toronto, several years before either “coworking spaces” or “social entrepreneurship” were in vogue. And the CSI was a merger of the two: a welcoming hub for entrepreneurs who set out to build companies that did good. This year, the center expanded to New York City where it opened a 24,000 facility in the historic Starrett-Lehigh building that was built in the early 1930s.

Today and tomorrow, the Centre is hosting the Work Revolution Summit—an event with the big goal of bringing entrepreneurs, investors, futurists and others together with the “aim to fundamentally re-design the way we work.” The Centre itself is a fine setting for the summit.

CSI: The numbers

The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is more than a coworking space. It follows an incubator model that encourages discussion, collaboration and innovation among its members. The space houses 220 people, composing 115 member organizations: a mix between for-profit, non-profit and and individual freelancers. Other tenants of the Starrett-Lehigh Building, which borders the Hudson River, include Hugo Boss, Tommy Hilfiger and Martha Stewart.

Costs for hot desks range from between $125 for 25 hours/month to $400 for unlimited hours. Private desks go for $450, team clusters for $950, and private offices range from $1,000 to $2,800 per month.

From Toronto to New York

CSI founders Tonya Surman, Margie Zeidler, Eric Meerkamper, Mary Rowe and Patrick Tobin hadn’t even heard the term “coworking” when they first opened in Toronto nearly a decade ago. But they knew then they could deal with rising real estate costs by sharing costs. Plus, they wanted to see how shared spaces themselves could become part of a social mission that’s concerned with urban affairs and world betterment.

While the CSI eventually expanded to three locations in Toronto, its leadership had never considered expanding to New York. RXR Realty, which recently purchased the Starrett-Lehigh building, wanted to open a shared community workspace in it and was looking for models to follow. Dave Gise, a friend of RXR CEO Scott Rechler, had been watching what was taking place in Toronto and it was obvious to Gise that they should convince CSI to expand in York. The CSI team initially preferred to stay put, but changed course when they saw the prime location with views of the Hudson.

By adding the New York location, CSI facilities cover 94,000 square feet, house 935 people and 500 member organizations across all four locations.

An early start from Sandy

The New York branch of CSI officially opened up in May, but it got its start unofficially in November 2012 in response to the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy. It created a make-shift pop-up work space that was free to businesses displaced by the storm’s aftermath. A few companies whose business operations took shelter at the CSI wound up staying, such as The Way We See the World (a sustainable product design company) and Be Social Change (an entrepreneurship education non-profit).

The eco way

All the decor in the facility was made with “green” and “eco-conscious” in mind. The kitchen tables were made from repurposed freight elevator doors. The kitchen cabinets and counters were salvaged from an old apothecary. All wood is locally sourced. The chandelier was saved from a New York hotel. The chairs are made from 80 percent post-consumer recycled plastic. And abandoned coat hangers were put together to both decorate a wall and serve the wintry, rainy and slushy needs of over 100 coat and umbrella-clad people.

Not alone in the green space

The Centre for Social Innovation isn’t the only coworking space in New York City concerned with focusing on social entrepreneurship and organizations with a green and eco-conscious ethic. The folks over at Green Spaces are concerned with that, too, and the teams behind each will cross-recommend people back and forth, depending on who they think is the best fit for which group.

The perks

Since opening, members like Becky Straw, co-founder of The Adventure Project, get to enjoy the intangible invaluables such as community and inspiration, as well as the little things that make working life a little easier: free coffee, meeting rooms and conference rooms, photocopying, printing and scanning, mail services, a take-what-you-need office supplies shelf, 24/7 access for members, napping rooms, phone booths, and even scooters to get from one end of the office to the other in record time.

Who’s in your network?

CSI offers a number of workshops and events for member organizations, including Wednesday Salad Clubs (everyone brings a topping and folks mingle and net to know one another’s projects in the kitchen), mapping out their networks in a game of “6 degrees of social innovation,” providing management oversight, sitting on project advisory committees and leveraging networks and relationships.

Return on Change

One company that calls the CSI home is Return on Change, an online funding platform for high impact, socially innovative startups and social enterprises, clean tech, medical tech and education tech. They want to connect these startups with investors, but not just the usual, “accredited” kind: they want anyone who wants to become part of a startup enterprise to be able to invest for an equity share. But they’ll have to wait until the Securities and Exchange Commission opens the door to equity crowdfunding.

CEO and founder Sang Lee started Return on Change in 2011 as the Obama administration and Congress were debating the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS), which paved the way for crowdfunding’s expansion. His team includes six in New York City (including operations director Alia Nagm, shown here) with another six in Ukraine, and they launched a beta site in July. They see their platform as a complementary method of funding relative to venture capital, which rejects about 98 percent of all startups applying for funds. Their remote model of pitching and investing, available to anyone, they say, will streamline the process and let the average investor shop for startups to invest in the same way Amazon lets you pick and choose among consumer goods.

Published: September 23, 2013
Filed Under: Community Relations

The RXR operating platform manages 73 commercial real estate properties and investments with an aggregate gross asset value of approximately $17.9 billion, comprising approximately 23.4 million square feet of commercial operating properties and control of development rights for approximately 6,300 multi-family and for sale units in the New York Metropolitan area. Gross asset value compiled by RXR Realty in accordance with company fair value measurement policy and is comprised of capital invested by RXR and its partners, as well as leverage.