A project aiming to bring Silicon Valley’s network of investors, experts and deal-makers to Richmond in a way that doesn’t displace existing residents, but rather brings them into the fold, is gaining a national audience.
Wesley Alexander, CEO of CoBiz Richmond, a coworking space and business incubator that recently opened near the downtown BART Station, laid out the new venture’s plan to maximize Richmond’s wealth of existing talent at a public panel held by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, Jan. 14.
The discussion was sponsored by Chevron and featured top minds from groups such as the International Finance Corporation, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Center for Entrepreneurship and Executive Development. The event explored how the U.S. can lead the world in meeting global demand for entrepreneurship and innovation, particularly with a flood of young people entering the workforce.
With 42 percent of the world’s population under age 25, finding jobs for them has become one of the most pressing global challenges, according to CSIS.
CoBiz is viewed as a potential solution to maximizing innovation that can create jobs and sustain communities, particularly in underserved parts of the world.
Led by Alexander, CoBiz is a project of the Chevron Richmond Refinery’s eQuip Richmond initiative, a multi-year $10 million investment that funds strategies to improve communities in Richmond and North Richmond by encouraging small business development, preparing residents for the workforce, and creating pathways to sustainable, living wages.
CoBiz isn’t your usual coworking space and incubator. Within its 9,000 square feet that features all the technologies needed to compete in the modern era, such as a sound-proofed vlogging and podcast room, the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center and Richmond Main Street Initiative, among others, join businesses and industry experts in helping provide a springboard for local residents with big ideas. The plan is to create an ecosystem from the space similar to Silicon Valley’s where good business ideas are rewarded with investments that lead to job creation in West Contra Costa County.
“Richmond, Calif., where I reside, is about 56 miles from the epicenter of incubation, innovation…yet the benchmark practices, the funding, the subject matter experts, the experiences and conversations that occur every day in Stanford, Palo Alto and Mountain View…rarely if ever come to Richmond,” Alexander said on the panel.
The lack of access and exposure to ideas and capital doesn’t just suppress talent from the city, said Alexander, but also deprives residents, including young people attending local schools, with the connections and support services needed to help local companies scale.
And it’s not just about business resources, but also those “that make sure people are well,” Alexander said.
“There needs to be a combination of not only promoting entrepreneurship, but making sure there’s wellness programs for people who can minimize homelessness so they have a place to stay and their kids can be vibrant,” he said.
Investing in ideas that create jobs requires workers, so CoBiz offers resources that remove barriers to workforce entry for local residents who lack stable housing, have been involved in the justice system, or are veterans returning home.
A shared coworking space brings together entrepreneurs, creatives, nonprofiteurs, educators, students and civic leaders to “convene in one place, meet similarly-minded people, and exchange, connect, network, collaborate, take ideas and turn them into something powerful,” Alexander said.
Such ideas, when put in action, permeate the schools system and prompt City Hall policies that ultimately attract outside investors into the city, he added.
While CoBiz is brand new, in one way the venture already scored its first deep-pocketed outside supporter. MC Hammer, the multi-million record-selling hip hop artist who has since transformed into an influential tech investor, served as the keynote speaker at the CoBiz grand opening in November, where he expressed a desire to bring colleagues to the space.
During the grand opening, MC Hammer talked about regularly attending San Francisco Giants games, not necessarily to see the Giants win, but to be in a luxury suite filled with industry experts collaborating on new business ideas.
CoBiz “has the ability to change a lot of lives…a lot of companies can come out of here,” the artist said. “The people who know how to best use these new platforms, they’re right here in Richmond.”
Alexander says a lot of people are doing great things in Richmond but are operating in isolation.
“When it comes to entrepreneurship, you need a community,” he said.
An example of this, he pointed out, is the creation of CoBiz itself. Chevron’s eQuip Richmond Initiative has provided seed funding for several ideas that aim to create jobs and enrich local communities, such as Pogo Park Products, which trains Iron Triangle residents to design and build parks and park amenities that improve their neighborhoods as well as others throughout the state. Another eQuip investment is the Construction Resource Center, which prepares local workers and small contractors for jobs and economic opportunities presented by Richmond’s ongoing building boom.
Alexander says it’s important to both understand a community’s assets, and to get those assets to collaborate.
“Chevron provided seed funding for CoBiz Richmond…with the expectation that they can become self-sustaining within two years, so that they themselves can become anchor institutions and can contribute to the ecosystem,” he said. “And they can replicate that with the people they touch.”
Those particular comments drew praise from fellow panelist Bill Sonneborn, senior director of disruptive technology and funds for the International Finance Corporation.
“I think entrepreneurship is a key part of the solution to solving poverty in Richmond, Calif., or outside the United States. And I’m glad you guys are thinking on the topic,” Sonneborn said.