A coworking champion looks into becoming a coworking space founder

Nardi has an idea for a dog-friendly space
A coworking champion looks into becoming a coworking space founder
Beth Skogen
Brennan Nardi with her 6-year-old Labrador, Sayner

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth column in a series about UpStart, a free entrepreneurship program for women and people of color supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF.

For almost 20 years, I’ve watched the entrepreneurial spirit incubate on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and hatch on Madison’s economic road map – dotting the landscape with startups large and small and attracting other businesses and amenities to the area.

Young graduates and seasoned Ph.D.s fill research and business parks, land high-paying jobs at Epic Systems Corp. and the spinoffs it generates, and populate commercial buildings around Capitol Square and down East Washington Avenue.

UpStart participants make up a portion of those entrepreneurs, but many more come to the program with nontraditional backgrounds and working-class roots. Along the way, they’ve faced racial, gender and socioeconomic barriers that aren’t always encountered on four-year campuses or inside hip offices with ping-pong tables and kombucha taps.

That’s why an UpStart instructor described the opportunity as “winning the entrepreneur’s lottery.” The people who are chosen for the program – women and people of color – have the same grit and ambition as their white male counterparts but less access to the financial and social capital.

Sure, there are exceptions, but by and large it’s a bigger lift, as documented by both research and reality. There have been improvements over time, and I’ve been able to write about the positive momentum in the pages of this magazine, which is why I wanted to focus on UpStart. It’s an incredible resource for this demographic. And I happen to fit the profile.

For 10 weeks, I experienced UpStart through the eyes of an entrepreneur chasing down her dream to build a business. What I saw was exciting and terrifying at the same time. Exciting because I was able to explore my idea to open a dog-friendly coworking space where I can conduct my freelance writing and editing business. Terrifying because I’m not a risk taker, though I admire people who are, especially when those risks are rewarded.

On the first day of class on a cold, dreary night in January, our instructor told us to write down “one thing you can commit to during UpStart to help you chase your ‘someday’ goal.” She intentionally worked the word “someday” into the assignment because many students, myself included, were there to workshop an idea. Only a handful of us had launched a business. All of us were in the early stages of our journeys.

My someday goal? “Figure out health insurance!” For most of my adult life I’ve carried the health insurance for me and my family. It’s among the reasons why I haven’t pursued dreams like living abroad, taking a sabbatical or spending more quality time with my lovable yellow Labrador while doing what I love – writing and editing. If I don’t have a job, we don’t have health insurance. The idea of that terrifies me more than the idea of starting my own business excites me.

Fortunately, UpStart is about facing your fears and overcoming obstacles as much as it is about gaining a better understanding of entrepreneurship. So off I went into the wild world of healthcare.gov, the website for the insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act, to see if I would be eligible and how much it would cost to enroll. The good news is that it appears I would be eligible. The bad news is that it would be a heck of a lot more expensive than my current employer-based plan. And it doesn’t include dental.

UpStart’s lead instructor and director of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center Michelle Somes-Booher offers great counsel, as well as sobering reality checks. In next month’s column, Somes-Booher considers my “someday goal” dilemma, and a coworking expert weighs in on the competition, which is growing every day.

Brennan Nardi is an aspiring entrepreneur and former editor of Madison Magazine. Reach her at brennannardi@gmail.com.