Upflex caught up with our partner Switchboard’s Director Emily Vanest about Switchboard’s emphasis on community and diversity, and how this will set them apart in the future.
Switchboard is a coworking space in the heart of the Fountain Square neighborhood in downtown Indianapolis. According to Director Emily Vanest, it was founded about two years ago by neighborhood residents working from home — and getting a bit tired of the home office. “They bought an abandoned church building and the house next door to it and refashioned the inside to use as office and coworking space,” Vanest tells Upflex. Here’s what else we learned.
Skye: So, it was founded by a group of locals who had a clear need and did something about it.
Emily: “Yes–and this group has grown into something beautiful and diverse: we have 65 businesses; 50% of them are women-owned and 20% of them are minority-owned. For us, diversity is of primary importance.”
Skye: What else makes Switchboard special?
Emily: “Beyond diversity, we value an open space with lots of natural light. We wanted to build a warm, welcoming, professional space with fresh air and good coffee; and we definitely check all those boxes.”
Skye: How did you get into the coworking space industry?
Emily: “I was the CFO of a local arts center before this. Place was very important to us, as was equitable community development. We helped people move to downtown Indianapolis, connecting them to community by introducing them to good landlords, schools, places-to-go, etc.”
Skye: That’s awesome. So you’ve always been community-minded.
Emily: “It’s very important to me. I met the developer of the Switchboard project — another good, community-minded person – through this role. We worked together frequently, helping people find housing in our neighborhood. When he bought this building, he came to me and said, ‘I’d love to hand you this.’”
Emily: “Yes. I worked on the design, bought the furniture and the art, built the website, learned IT troubleshooting, developed member onboarding — and I still make the coffee every morning!”
Skye: How do you see this space growing?
Emily: “We currently have 22 private offices; and they’re always full. We can still add coworkers and desks, but I’m generally happy with where it is. We operate cash-flow-positive; we have a quality community and a good group of people. I’m not interested in jeopardizing that for the sake of numbers. We definitely have room, but preserving the vibe we have going is the most important thing.”
Skye: It’s valuable to preserve character. What would you say is most important to maintain within your space?
Emily: “Guarding our unique culture and quality member experience is a high priority. We want our culture to be open-armed, and open-minded. We are willing to turn down opportunities that take away from that.”
Skye: Who’s your target member?
Emily: “Anyone; we’re a very diverse community. I find that when people are looking for spaces in this area — there are 5 within a mile of us — and they come here, they land here. So as a result, we have all kinds of people: old, young — literally anybody can come here and find someone like them.”
Skye: That’s great, and that’s a clear sign of progress. In general, how do you see this coworking industry progressing?
Emily: “I would personally like to see spaces grow in diversity. A heavily networking and tech-oriented environment lends itself to a sort of ‘bro-club’ atmosphere. Even the women-only coworking spaces are heavily events and networking-driven.
Skye: What do you think coworking spaces should be, beyond networking hubs?
Emily: “I think when people are looking for coworking solutions, they’re looking for a place to get their work done. For us, our space is simple and intuitive; and people respond to that. Sometimes you don’t find that in the larger coworking world. As we developed our space, we had that in mind. We are quiet; we use phone booths for calls; we don’t have beer on tap because we wanted our kids to be able to visit us at work. People in our community have responded really well to that.”
Skye: How have you grown personally from this experience?
Emily: “I just really, really, really like the people that I work with. I enjoy all the different kinds of people. I know their stories and their families and their struggles and their work —I’m just really thankful for that breadth of experience for me . . . the friendship and encouragement. I’ve met and worked with people I would not have necessarily crossed paths with if I had not joined Switchboard. It’s just fun; I feel like I really hit the jackpot.”