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Coworking Non-Profit Offers Collaborative Community Hub

by and on March 09, 2014 8:20 AM

It’s a common sight: a downtown coffee shop or meeting place full of students and professionals working side-by-side, headphones on and laptops open.

But it’s also common knowledge that most of these people aren’t interacting with one another, and Serena Fulton, a 2013 Penn State graduate, wants to change that.

“You can go into a coffee shop and be working next to someone, but have no idea what they’re doing,” Fulton says.

Enter New Leaf Initiative, a fledgling non-profit of which Fulton is co-director. Consider New Leaf, which recently opened in a new 2,600 square foot location in the State College Municipal Building on South Allen Street, the coffee shop’s evolved form.

New Leaf is one of the newest of over 3,000 coworking establishments in the United States. The coworking business model hinges upon members paying for access to internet, desk space and meeting rooms. To date, coworking offices have been most successful in urban centers where office space is hard to find, and most popular among freelancers, entrepreneurs and creative-class professionals who can often work from just a laptop and backpack.

Fulton and Eric Sauder, New Leaf’s other co-director, are hoping their particular brand of collaborative coworking — New Leaf is non-profit, most offices are not — will prove that the concept can take off in a college town as well.

Like other coworking offices, New Leaf sells desk space. A full membership, which costs $450 per year, offers a private desk and access to meeting rooms for private use. A half membership, for $250, offers a “hot desk” — one that will be used by other members throughout the week.

In addition to memberships, New Leaf also offers partnerships, which offer all-day internet access, and space for the general public, who are offered one hour of internet access every day. Paying partners and the public can also rent the meeting rooms, for $15 and $25 per hour, respectively.

New Leaf is open to members only from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., and open to members, partners and the public from 12 p.m. until 10 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Unlike other coworking enterprises, New Leaf aims to make a cooperative vision a core part of the experience, one for which members are willing to pay. Fulton and Sauder personally sit behind desks by the front door, and make it a point to welcome every visitor who comes in. The hope is that this welcoming environment will lead to members who take an active interest in each other’s work.

“I’ve met so many people in different sectors talking about similar ideas,” Sauder says. “But they don’t know each other yet.”

Todd Erdley, CEO of Videon Central, a technology company that develops applications for consumer electronics, is one of the early adopters of the New Leaf model.

“I’m a serial entrepreneur,” he says, “and this town desperately needs New Leaf.”

Erdley purchased a full membership and is also a board member for the organization. He plans to use the space as a second office for Videon interns, and an occasional meeting room for the company’s leadership team.

New Leaf has already attracted more than 30 members and 30 partners, and can support about eight more memberships before maxing out desk space. It’s the first time the non-profit, which started as a global sustainability initiative four years ago and morphed several times since, has a definite revenue stream. Still, the bulk of its financial support so far has come in the form of a $75,000 grant from the Centre Foundation, and a significant amount of the hands-on work will be handled by a cadre of enthusiastic, unpaid student interns.

New Leaf already has prominent supporters, like Mayor Elizabeth Goreham and Borough Manager Tom Fountaine. Now, all that remains to be seen is whether State College will adopt the collaborative spirit New Leaf promises.

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This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

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