Spring 2020 was a time of unknowns. Initially, it seemed that perhaps in a couple of months at most, life would return to normal. As time went on, we hunkered down to “wait and see”. Impact Hub Boston had, since its founding in 2013, grown into a coworking space for impact entrepreneurs and innovators, community-led workshops, and peer-to-peer learning beyond its everyday identity as a downtown coworking location.
As part of one of the world’s largest networks focused on building entrepreneurial communities for impact at scale, Impact Hub Boston was in the fortuitous position to harness the best of that global community. The global network supported each other with guidelines, tips to support the ecosystem, all challenged by this unique situation and struggling to leverage their best thinking and solutions.
Additionally, Impact Hub was fortunate to be part of the CIC network. CIC’s Tim Rowe researched the cutting edge of standards for responding to the Covid pandemic and took the lead on proactive communication with the community on Covid-related developments.
It was a time of adapting to offer connections and community that our members and larger network crave.
March 2020 – a time to rethink and to reframe our role according to our member’s needs
Thanks to the capable, committed management team of Hilary Ippolito and Alisha Harrington and support staff of Community Hosts, Impact Hub Boston had grown to nearly 300 members who gravitated to the regularly scheduled, members-only events, and whose work life focused around the coworking space on the 15th floor at 50 Milk St.
Outward facing activities, also a good part of life at the Hub, included a full lineup of Hub co-sponsored community events and organizations that rented space in the building.
We can still collaborate and cowork
The team’s activities after the stay-at-home orders were issued were driven by two main goals:
• To keep the community connected and grounded and provide a sense of hope
• To support members’ business needs with resources, links and tech assistance
Programming was designed to ensure consistent touchpoints to keep the community intact, beginning with active communication so members could understand what was happening and access offerings daily, virtually.
Central to the communication and connection efforts was The Newsletter, which members had been receiving, redesigned intentionally to keep members engaged. Each issue was chock full of relevant events, fun tidbits, resources and links as well as updates on Covid-19. Newsletters recognized members’ achievements & projects, announced job opportunities, as well as sharing resources to support individuals and companies that were struggling.
Creative Experiments in Virtual Coworking
Member events, traditionally places to connect with others, were moved to virtual: the Wednesday Lunch, traditionally one of the most popular events, was offered daily for a time. Many of these provided opportunities for learning, unlocking opportunities. Members could jump into the discussion to feed their need for socializing or business resources in any of these formats, from goal-setting meetings to affinity groups for different interests, such as sustainability professionals and women in enterprise.
Members appreciated the Hub’s efforts to offer a space of normalcy. The team made significant efforts to leverage the knowledge of the community through practical events:
- Bi-Weekly CCC – Collaborate to Crush Your Challenge – a mini mastermind event at which members shared challenges and others weighed in with solutions. Run by a community host, CCC drew a full group of 10-12 for peer problem solving
- “What Now”, offered by Hub member and diversity/anti-racism consultant, Brenda Herrera Moreno
- Alec Lai of Zephyr was welcomed by a large group as he demystified stimulus bills by unpacking the key issues, requirements, and deadlines
- Skills Based Workshops: on many topics ranging from marketing to a Google representative talking through best practices for their tools
- Programs such as UNAGB and UN Perspective Series continued virtually
By June 2020 Impact Hub reopened, though with many precautions. It would be many months before any in-person programming returned, and then, very gradually. Every precaution was observed with specific guidelines based on Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s directives. CIC provided regular safety updates. The ventilation system was revamped to meet the most stringent CDC recommendations, masking was mandatory, and distancing and cleaning practices exceeded all local mandates.
Persistence Through Pivots
The challenge for the Impact Hub Team remained how to recreate the ambiance of connection and collaboration, the strong social platform, created over the past years through the magical blend of exceptional meeting space, exhibition and events space, workshops, and a crafted program of member-driven events. How to best serve and engage the diverse membership and community partners?
Co-hosting and collaborating on programming was an opportunity to support local initiatives, small businesses and to showcase members’ expertise. The platform of choice was initially Zoom, the go-to. familiar to most attendees. Though, for an organization that thrives on collaboration, networking and facilitating connection, the Hub required a more flexible, interactive tool, one that could simulate the environment of the in-person event.
- An innovative solution was found with https://spatial.chat/, video chat conversations that recreate real-life social interactions and generate higher participation and engagement than in-person meetings regardless of size. The Hub discovered that a wide range of organizations could leverage the interactive and flexible benefits of spatial.chat. This was the ideal solution to Impact Hub’s social gatherings, like the Friday at 5 Wind Down.
- Impact Hub member Eric Sargent hosted a successful Virtual Resource Fair on spatial.chat:
The Resource Generation Action Café a multiracial membership community of young people (18-35) with wealth and/or class privilege committed to the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power.
- The Boston Impact Hub team invited all US Hub members to network on spatial.chat for a US Network Hub Member Gathering.
- BIWOC gathering circle, a community building/networking session to promote BIWOC (Black, Indigenous, Womxn of Color) was facilitated by the Hub using the platform
For the Annual Holiday Market, 16 Boston vendors exhibited at Gifts That Do Good Holiday Market 2020 In normal times, vendors offering local-made items, and innovative creations supporting social impact and sustainable entrepreneurs would gather for an afternoon/evening in the Milk Street top floor Lighthouse space. This bustling event kicks off the holiday season, drawing a large gathering from the building as well as the wider CIC/Impact Hub network. Vendors and attendees were similarly impressed: One vendor noted “I had a super awesome experience! I got to connect more people to our business, this brings great value in different ways!”
The virtual holiday party brought the cocktail party online – attendees called the flexible social gathering platform “a lifesaver in pandemic times.”
The Hub’s willingness to explore formats, platforms, and technologies to facilitate virtual community kept the community alive during the pandemic.
Our Path forward: Growing A Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem
Impact cannot happen in isolation; it takes shape in interdependent, lively ecosystems comprised of diverse actors, inspiring interactions, enabling policies, and resources. Impact Hub provides collaborative environments where many, if not all of these elements come together. ~Impact Hub Global
Boston officially reopened on May 29, and the IH team organized space for co-working members’ comfort and safety while activity is picking up daily, and steps to reintroduce events in-person are underway, with Member Lunch returning the week after Memorial Day. Stay tuned and check out the newsletter for more virtual and in-person programs.
Perhaps even more important than the return of activities to the physical space is building a support ecosystem for impact entrepreneurs in the newly-flexible post-pandemic world. According to a survey by Forbes, 90% of companies plan to become hybrid in their approach to work. As a coworking space with a deep community, Impact Hub Boston is poised to support impact organizations as they explore the new world. Among the plans for the organization are:
1. Curating a diverse and collaborative community through multifunctional physical spaces. Filled with common areas, meeting rooms, and offices the space will allow members to feel at home, exchange, and co-create.finding unlikely allies and inspiring events to stimulate and excite.
2. Putting entrepreneurs at the center: designing and implementing support services to boost members’ development on their entrepreneurial journey.
3. Creating impactful programs and partnerships: in impact ecosystems, intermediary organizations such as Impact Hub and others provide direct help and resources, as well as access to other support actors and peers. Our goal is empowering the members of our network by helping them with the resources, capacity, and stability they need to engage in the conversation.
Impact Hub Global research revealed the most important support need of social entrepreneurs across all years was “feeling part of a larger community and network”, followed by “gaining visibility and credibility and connecting to advisors and experts.
We will continue to explore the support needs of social entrepreneurs in our Impact Hub network. To learn what are the most important sources of support? Do their needs change over time? The work is ever-changing.