Boston Real Estate News – Roxbury Innovation can open doors for Inner City Entrepreneurs

A start-up center for Roxbury?


The Boston Globe

By Lawrence Harmon



BOSTON IS green with envy over the Cambridge Innovation Center, a brilliant real estate concept that provides flexible office space in Kendall Square for start-up, technology-oriented companies and venture capitalists.

With conference rooms galore and airy work-spaces that still allow for plenty of shoulder-rubbing, the center boasts that its tenants have raised more than $1.2 billion in venture capital since 2001.

The Menino administration promises to break ground this spring for a scaled-down innovation center in the Seaport Square development along Northern Avenue. The best innovation centers are large enough for scores or even hundreds of small start-up companies to share state-of-the-art work space and administrative services with like-minded entrepreneurs. The Boston innovation center won’t be big enough for that. Instead, it will be more a place where tech-savvy workers in black turtlenecks a la Steve Jobs can hang out, attend workshops, and strengthen their social and business connections.

The center should be a fine addition to the Innovation District. But it won’t create much buzz in Cambridge, never mind Silicon Valley. If Boston innovators really want to break new ground, they should create such centers in outlying, impoverished neighborhoods.

The innovation center concept is already being applied successfully downtown to address environmental, social, and cultural challenges. Space with a Soul leases office space in the Innovation District to more than 25 small nonprofit organizations along with space for fundraising events. The group promotes on-site organized lectures and informal lunches as a way for nonprofit groups to engage in “mission acceleration.’’

Greentown Labs, also in the Innovation District, takes a similar approach by offering incubator space for clean-technology start-up companies. Budding entrepreneurs get access to research and development resources in addition to a place to “get dirty, bend metal, and make noise.’’ On Atlantic Avenue, WorkBar provides work-spaces, administrative services, and instant colleagues for telecommuters and freelancers who usually work at home but often need to meet clients in a more professional setting.

Can this concept work outside of downtown’s hipster hood? Boston Rising, a start-up nonprofit, believes it can. It proposes the creation of a civic incubator in the struggling Grove Hall neighborhood of Roxbury. Tiziana Dearing, the group’s CEO, argues that the same kind of social lubrication used by web designers and life scientists to achieve success could smooth the way for inner-city entrepreneurs. And she believes that poor people are more likely to escape poverty by establishing and expanding their social and business networks than by relying on traditional social services.

Unfortunately, Boston Rising has taken its sweet time leasing space in Grove Hall. The group’s message is exciting. But it would sound more believable coming out of a building in Grove Hall than from the nonprofit group’s office on Atlantic Avenue.

Eventually, Dearing envisions putting groups of Grove Hall residents in meeting rooms with potential commercial partners from various business sectors where they can collaborate in ways similar to the ones taking place in the Cambridge Innovation Center. In the meantime, she hopes that workers involved in the neighborhood’s underground economy will find better ways to support themselves and each other by sharing experiences and ideas in a Grove Hall innovation center.

It’s not so far-fetched. Boston’s poor neighborhoods teem with hair stylists, construction contractors, child-care workers, caterers, cleaners, and others working out of their homes. Some could thrive in partnership or with access to business plans, accounting help, and attractive spaces to meet prospective clients.

Boston Rising has prepared the ground by creating a $250,000 trust for local residents to manage. Starting this summer, the trustees will make grants in the $500 to $5,000 range to local organizations and entrepreneurs. Dearing doesn’t expect that every grant will result in a profitable new business or spectacular idea to solve social problems. But she does expect that core business skills will be built in the process.

And the Menino administration’s office of New Urban Mechanics, which is eager to find technology-based solutions to urban problems, has offered its help.

“Innovation can come out of Grove Hall,’’ said Dearing. “Just treating something like it’s possible creates change on its own.’’

It is possible. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that the Innovation District on the waterfront was a no-account place with a negligible future.