Co-working Toward Changing the World: Centre for Social Innovation New York

If you’re branching out as an entrepreneur, the typical office space just won’t do. If you’re branching out as an entrepreneur and trying to change the world in the process, then you really have to take things to the next level. Enter the Centre for Social Innovation. The co-working space and community center is home to nonprofits, innovators, and, of course, social entrepreneurs in New York City.

CSI started in Toronto in 2003, and now has a space in the Starrett-Lehigh Building in West Chelsea. David Gise, the director of operations in New York, met with hundreds of people before CSI Starrett-Lehigh opened its doors last year. He said that social innovation is a movement ­– and the wave is coming. “We didn’t realize when we first started down this road how much interest there really was, “ Gise said. “It’s been amazing how fast the community has built and the kind of work that they’re doing all over the world.”

AIF spoke to Guise about what CSI looks for in its members, the importance of social entrepreneurs having the space, and bringing the big idea to the Big City:

Ashley C: What do you do at CSI?

David: I am the director of operations here at Centre for Social Innovation, and I am also the one who brought concept for it from Toronto to New York City. My best friend bought this building in 2011, and expressed an interest in doing something to build community amongst the [6,000] tenants in this building. He asked me if I would be willing to take space to help do that.

In 2009, I wrote a blog post about Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, and I said, ‘You know what, let me go there and see if I can get some ideas as to what we could do here.’ Flew to Toronto, in two seconds, I said, ‘Dead or alive, this concept needs to be in New York City.’

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A: Why was it so important to have this type of space in this city? What did you think it was about New York City that warranted bringing CSI here?

D: I had studied co-working models around the world, and I’ve been to a lot of spaces, and a lot of the spaces have felt very crowded, but there was no vibe. And it was when I walked into CSI, I didn’t know it at the time, but it was that central theme of social innovation and the passionate people that were in that space, putting them all together, there was a palpable intensity and feeling. It was different from any other space that I had visited.

And then after meeting with people in New York City, and hearing how many people were working on these amazing projects, but were working in coffee shops, or working at home, in libraries, and were potentially failing because they weren’t getting the support that they needed, building a home like this for them, where they could come and they could gather and show expertise and knowledge and networks and really build a community, it just made so much sense.

A: Going off of the name, “Social Innovation,” what type of entrepreneurs or thinkers do you feel flourish in this space?

D: Anybody [who is] trying to make the world a better place. We have a very diverse number of sectors within this space. The people that tend to flourish in this space are people that know both what they hope to give back to the community and what they hope to get out of the community, and also that want to be part of a community.

So by coming here, they understand that sometimes it’s ideas that come from different sectors that really help to push their initiatives forward. So it’s not always just surrounding yourself with like-minded people, it’s all these different ideas. So coming in with an open mind, wanting to be a part of something bigger than their initiative alone, has really led to a lot of collaboration in the space.

A: How do those collaborations or that interaction work between the different groups or the members that are here?

D: Basically from the design of the space, which was really designed to maximize the interaction between our members, to the staffing and the way we train our staff. We have someone on staff called “Community Animator,” and their job is to get know everybody in the space, and to help connect the dots. Not only between members, but also to introduce them to programs that are happening within the space that will support their work.

We have volunteers, that are also trained, they’re called “Desk Exchange Community Animators,” and their job is also to connect. So we really place a lot of emphasis on talking to our members and listening to where they need help and connecting them with other members.

But then we also do a lot of events where we get them to connect. We have a weekly salad club where we supply the lettuce and everybody brings an ingredient, and we just have a big communal lunch and everybody gets to talking and gets to know each other. We have waffle breakfasts where we make breakfast together and people get to know each other.

We have one event called “Six Degrees of Social Innovation,” where we not only bring together our members, we also bring together the very diverse ecosystem of social entrepreneurs in New York City.

A: I noticed that on the website, CSI is described as an incubator.

D: So we’re not doing that here yet in New York City. We do have an “Agents of Change” program that we launched when we first started here in New York City, [in which] people applied and we have given them free space to advance their projects. Some of those ideas have really taken off—it’s amazing how far they’ve come with just an idea.

A: Who are some of the “Agents of Change”?

D: We have one organization called Drive Change, and Drive Change created a food truck business to help formerly incarcerated youth. So when she came in, she came in with this idea. We are one of the few buildings in New York City [in which food trucks can come in] and come up the elevator and drive up onto the floor. So we had our last “Six Degrees” event, and she debuted her truck. The truck is now built and operational, she’s now serving all over Brooklyn, and she has hired I think ten formerly incarcerated youth to work on the truck. So what was an idea is now an actual operating business.

A: What do you look for in members?

D: No. 1, they have to show that they have some social mission as part of their mandate. We look to see the issue areas that they’re working on, and for us it’s important that we curate a very, very diverse community of people across all sectors. We look to see that people clearly articulate, like I said earlier, what they hope to give to the community, but also what they hope to get out of the community.

We know that communities don’t work if it’s only take, take, take—that they have to be willing to give back as well. We like people to come in and we meet with them, because we want to make sure it’s a good fit in terms of just the vibe. And it’s a very warm vibe, I’m sure you feel it when you come in. It was intentional—in two seconds you feel that, just goodness that comes out of people when you meet with them, and that’s the right fit here.