Drew Foulkes remembers the moment he felt that CityCoHo, the sustainability-focused coworking space he helped launch, had arrived.
It was the first Saturday of Philly Tech Week 2014 and student entrepreneurship group nvigor had asked if it could host its Student Startup Summit at CoHo. Foulkes had never hosted a conference before. CoHo had only been open on the ground floor of 2401 Walnut St. for a few months.
“I was nervous, like butterflies in your stomach at a Middle School dance nervous,” he wrote.
But by the end of the day, after speaking on a panel about coworking to 100 college students, Foulkes made his way to the Philly Tech Week kickoff and felt like he was part of the community.
“Shuffling my feet down Schuylkill Trail towards Eakins Oval to see Tetris played on the Cira Centre, it was so cold, still so rainy from day before, but for the first time in months I knew that we had arrived,” he wrote.
Foulkes, 26, is leaving Philadelphia to join his partner in New York. In his Exit Interview, he talks about new coworking entrants to the Philly market, his unfailing ties to the city and how he’s still a community manager at heart, even when he’s a member at coworking spaces in New York.
How did you come to live and work in Philly?
I grew up in Philadelphia. I was born at Pennsylvania Hospital, went to Abington Friends School and Temple University and ended up along East Passyunk Avenue until this February when I relocated to Manhattan.
I love Philadelphia and, as anyone who has come into contact with me knows, that love goes very deep and is a critical part of my identity. Even as I sit here in my New York apartment, I’m staring at ink prints of the Art Museum and Independence Hall, a black and white photo of Market Street in 1910 (a departing gift from cofounder of CityCoHo Max Zahniser), two bottles of Blue Coat [Gin] (one regular and the other barrel-aged), a bottle of Penn 1681 Vodka and a beat up old Stratocaster that I bought for $100 from a guitar store owner who was being constructively evicted from his storefront on South Street in the winter of 2009. I refuse to let Philadelphia go. I always knew that I wanted to stay and build something there.
Community is not a scarce resource that we should hoard.
How’d you get your start in the tech scene?
After I graduated Temple in the Spring of 2012, I got the opportunity to partner with a colleague of one of my professors. We started Green Technology Recycling together, a small electronics recycling business that looked to extend the lifecycle of devices that Pennsylvania had just outlawed the disposal of by landfill. That was my first hard lesson in entrepreneurship. Apparently you can’t pay for rent with equity.
Everything changed when I met Zahniser. His nonprofit took over Good Karma Cafe for a day in the Spring of 2013 aiming to get some like-minded eco-geeks together for a coworking pop-up, much in the same tradition of the pre-Indy Hall days when developers took over coffee shops in Old City for days at a time to cowork together.
I worked with CoHo’s founders to attain 501(c)(3) status, and eventually refined the vision for CityCoHo, which was to be the first coworking space in the city to bring together the efforts and energy of the sustainability movement and all of the organizations that made it vital.
What were the early days of CoHo like?
CityCoHo began construction in October 2013 and we opened at the end of January 2014. At that point we were only the home of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council, who still remains the anchor of the 1st floor space. The first few months were tough. We were new, didn’t know anybody, and nobody knew us — at least in the tech and entrepreneurship scene. They were like, “CoHo? What the hell is a CoHo?” Someone once called to ask if we were connected to a salmon fishery.
But we slowly got a following. People dug our approach to community. They dug the fact that we didn’t solely rely on things like free beer and parties to get new organizations to align with our vision and become members. They dug that we composted and discouraged swag and disposables.
They dug the fact that we said “Yes” a lot. “30-person Girl Develop It Class? “60-person WordPress meetup?” “You guys just want to crash here tonight and do a civic hacking project?” Sure! All were welcome, and we loved it.
CityCoHo is about to turn 2.5 years old and we’ve grown from an original 7 members to over 150, and we’ve expanded into an additional 10,000+ square feet.
Our metrics for success had less to do with revenue and more to do with how vibrant and diverse our community was becoming.
What prompted the move?
I moved to New York after a long year and a half of commuting back and forth on the weekends to be with my girlfriend, Carla. She accepted a position in the neuroscience Ph.D. program at Mt. Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in the summer of 2014. We knew that eventually I would relocate to New York if the right opportunity arose.
In December of 2015, we got an offer for an apartment that we fell in love with a few blocks away from her hospital. If we wanted it we needed to sign and move in by Feb. 1. So I resigned from CityCoHo and started to figure out what was next. I know this: we made a great decision hiring Jen Hombach to take over for me as the head of CityCoHo in February. She had been working with 350.org and before that with Wash Cycle Laundry.
What’s next for you?
Since moving to New York I started working for a technology company based in Sao Paolo, Brazil called CI&T. They build beautiful software and applications for clients like Google, J&J and Coca-Cola. I got to know CI&T as they were CityCoHo members. So far I really like it. I want to take the frameworks and experience I gained building a community at CityCoHo and apply them to a bigger organization.
Although, one thing that is strange is I am now a coworking space member. I mainly bounce between spaces like WeWork and Alley NYC trying to find a home. I haven’t found a place like CityCoHo yet, but I’m still looking. People find it strange when I’m the only person cleaning their own coffee mug and restocking sugar packets at the spaces. I told them that “Old habits die hard” and “I know every little bit helps.”
I’m excited to start building my own community here in New York. I want to be a part of the scene that so far seems less accessible than that of Philadelphia, but there is plenty of time to change that impression. I’m still doing some volunteer work for Sustainability Nexus, and I hope to pick up more as new projects come along where I can do some good in New York. But I’m frequently back in Philadelphia where I get to use CityCoHo each time I’m there for meetings with CI&T, which is a fun silver lining.
Was CityCoHo affected by all the new entrants to the local market?
We weren’t. People asked us that all the time, and for a while, I was scared we were. But community is not a scarce resource that we should hoard and keep from each other. It is something that can be accomplished in a multitude of ways, coworking is just a recent incarnation.
I wish all coworking spaces the best of luck. But with the caveat, that if you are relying solely on amenities to attract customers there will always be a breaking point. A point where their beer on tap is better than yours. Their sofas are trendier than yours. Their space has a movie theater and yours doesn’t.
But when that cycle of oneupmanship begins to collapse in on itself, the spaces with the members who aren’t there for the amenities but are there because of each other; the spaces who have members who would work in an alley way in the middle of winter as long as there was WiFi and a group of friends to converse with, will always remain.
What’s your favorite place here?
There is a spot right in front of the mansion on Lemon Hill that overlooks Boathouse Row and the rest of the skyline. In my last few years of college and my first few years of working in Philadelphia my friends and I would infrequently ride our bikes down the Schuylkill Trail and turn up the hill leading towards the estate. We would put our bikes in the grass and sit on our jackets. When we timed it right we saw the sun go down over West Philadelphia. I like that place.
Can you share a lesson with us that you’ve learned during your time here?
The only reason that CityCoHo was successful was because we never set out to build a coworking space for the sake of having a successful business.
Most coworking spaces are there to sell desks. The smart spaces build a community for the purpose of supporting the business of the space. But the ones that actually have an impact set out to build a space for the purpose of forming and serving a community. Our metrics for success had less to do with revenue and more to do with how vibrant and diverse our community was becoming.
My mentor Max taught me to look at coworking like any ecosystem, where the metrics for its health are biodiversity. Not just how many different variations of species there are in an environment, but how much those species depend on one another for their sustenance and continued existence. If you have a coworking space, you could have an incredibly diverse array of members. But if those members don’t know one another, don’t depend on one another, and don’t support one another than you don’t have a healthy ecosystem.
Knowledge is power!
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