House aims to incubate entrepreneurs at Penn State

On the night of a pitch dinner, co.space is buzzing with conversation about the day’s achievements and solutions to problems like the winter blues and how to create sustainability.

The walls are painted with inspirational quotes such as “bloom wherever you are planted.” The home smells of curry chicken and collard greens – parts of the meal to be served to the house and the evening’s guests.

This is the distinctive nature of State College’s home for “changemakers.” Launched in 2013 by Penn State alumnus Spud Marshall and Christian Baum, the co.space is a home of innovation for young professionals and students. Its 20 residents between the ages of 18 and 35 have a variety of interests, including social entrepreneurship and engineering.

“My favorite part of days at the co.space is how the conversations we have really make you think. Not in a strenuous, academic fashion, but in a way that feels like you’re exercising your brain,” said Taylor Grove, a master’s student in international affairs who has lived in the house since last fall. “The support network and the ways this house allows you to just let your mind grow and think about things differently, but in a very safe place, I think is very nurturing and allows you to learn unlike anything you’d get in a classroom.”

The idea of a space that would facilitate change, creativity and personal growth began from Spud Marshall’s post-undergraduate experience. Marshall said he had a powerful year in an intentional living community at the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden, where he studied for a master’s degree in strategic leadership towards sustainability.

“I got my undergrad in mechanical engineering at Penn State and I’m not really a mechanical engineering guy. I was feeling frustrated after, so I ended up googling ‘free things to do in a year,’” Marshall said. “It took me to the 300th page of Google, but the experience was a transformative one. The community I was living with, the intentional community, dove into entrepreneurship,” he said.

He took the idea and shared it with Baum, a graphic designer and business consultant. In 2010, Marshall said he was told by a friend that their neighbor was selling their property – a fraternity house close to downtown State College.

That same year, Baum, Marshall and Eric Sauder co-founded New Leaf Initiative, a coworking space and community hub for entrepreneurs, community organizers and others in State College.

After working on the concept, Marshall and Baum founded the co.space in 2011. They spent the next year structuring the business plan and finalizing ideas.

“We spent all of 2012 exploring the idea and business models. We questioned who would live in in it [the house] and what would this look like,” Marshall said.

Though its purpose has evolved over the years, the group living space is meant to foster community and communication, according to Marshall.

“We were overwhelming the experience with the programming, but over the years we questioned what are people looking for,” Marshall said. “They really want authentic relationships in a pivotal time of their lives. When we started to realize how simple this was, we started stripping out the program pieces. We realized people just want to connect with folks.”

Co.spacers still take part in activities and retreats designed by Marshall and Baum. A journey board documents co.spacers’ monthly journeys, whether it is to find and connect with a tribe or acquire skills and competencies.

House manager Victoria Dickson said the board helps residents pinpoint where they are in their journey and how others in the home can support them. Dickson is one of two house managers and is a full-time graphic designer for Accuweather, the weather forecasting service based in State College.

“Not a lot of people know the love that Spud and Christian put into the programming. It really fosters this amazing sense of community love and it’s something special,” said Dickson. “My biggest hope as a house manager is to be a mentor and a confidant.”

The home features eccentric touches like monkey bars, a free expression wall that leads the way to the third floor and an Airbnb bedroom with a shower that looks like a cave entrance. Most of the innovations sprouted from “pitch projects” that help co.spacers take the ideas in their heads and bring them to life, according to Marshall.

“The model is essentially everyone pitches an idea, they have a month to do it and $100 to do it,” he said. “We didn’t want this space to be just people in their head. A lot of times people want to fund events, but if you want to create change it takes effort, initiative and drive.”

Former co.spacers have gone on to start their own startup companies, like BEEcosystem, which was founded by Dustin Betz and began as a pitch project. The company provides small observational honeybee hives, for indoors and outdoors, to promote conversation and education about honeybees.

Baum said he wishes for those who live in the home to leave with a foundational understanding of changemaking and what it means to the home and to them individually.

“Wanting to make a positive impact on the world can be as simple or as audacious as they can dream,” Baum said via email. “But the ability to understand themselves and their abilities aligned with what they wish to accomplish in a practical and actionable way will take them far. Think of it almost like a muscle they need to train and test again and again.”

Penn State senior Pranav Jain said he was introduced to the co.space through a sponsorship reception dinner before a HackPSU event – a 24-hour “hackathon” in which students have one day to create a solution for a global issue.

“The second I walked in, I knew I wanted to live here. I saw the people, the environment, and the whole place. It just screamed change and innovation, and I wanted to be a part of that,” he said.

After winning a HackPSU competition in 2016, Jain and his team won a trip to Amsterdam to the Thought for Food conference where their ideas garnered interest. Jain said his team took the idea and began a company called Nuntagri. The company aims to improve the transportation of food by means of increased farmer communication via SMS.

“I always look at problems with an open mind, so I think about what small or big way can I make a difference,” he said. “I found out that living in the co.space and working with the members in HackPSU has enlightened me about different opportunities that I would otherwise have flat-out rejected.”

Though he has already accepted a job with Microsoft, Jain said he will be working on growing his company.

Co.spacers share responsibility for cooking and cleaning. Each resident cooks three dinners per semester for the house, served every Sunday and Wednesday. The custom co.space app helps coordinate the night’s chefs and dietary guidelines. For cleaning the home, members are assigned a chore that rotates weekly.

“We want them to leave the home learning some #adulting, for a lack of a better term,” Baum said. “We like to say, ‘You can’t change the world if you can’t clean a dish.’ In other terms, you need to be able to tackle the small tasks before the big ones, and I think it also hints at a sense of modesty and practicality.”

With 20 people living under one roof and most having roommates, conflict is likely to happen. Dickson said that most of the complications of communal living usually revolve around the kitchen and noise.

“The kitchen can become quite cramped when seven people want to make dinner at the same time after a long day,” she said. “Noise can also be tough with 20 people, and we combat that by enforcing quiet hours, though it can be difficult to have so many people with so many different schedules and preferences for work hours.”

Residents, admitted through an application and interview process, pay $725 a month for rent. The cost covers the furnished bedroom and kitchen, free laundry service, programming and utilities. The house is financially maintained with their rent and managed by Marshall and Baum.

Marshall said he and Baum have explored expanding the project to other cities, but they are waiting for the right time to start a new community.

“We are considering a Philadelphia home and another home in State College, but we’re in no immediate crunch to launch the next location,” Marshall said.

Learn more about the co.space at www.thecospace.com.

Dejanae Gibson is a Penn State student majoring in print and digital journalism.

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