On a gray, dreary Tuesday morning at the intersection of South 18th and East Cary streets in Shockoe Bottom, Fringe co-founders Jordan Peace and Jason Murray see a bright future.
Inside their Startup Virginia suite at Capital One’s 1717 Innovation Center, they’re building a platform for companies to offer customized benefits to their workforces, with millennials in mind. Imagine a job with grocery delivery and gym classes alongside the standard health insurance and 401(k).
Fringe has some known tools — a desktop computer, a white board and sofa — to drum up ideas within the privacy of their own space. But outside those four walls, they’re exposed to an exciting unknown — a network of entrepreneurs and mentors helping them scale from a six-person team to something bigger. It’s business without barriers.
“Most people you talk to in the world about something that does not exist think ‘this is a stupid idea,’ ” Peace said. But at 1717, the attitude is “that’s awesome,” he added.
When Capital One purchased the 101-year-old tobacco warehouse from two of Startup Virginia’s founders in 2017, the company made a concerted effort to have the space match that “awesome” mentality. They conducted interviews within the community. They designed themes for each floor around Richmond neighborhoods — Scott’s Addition, Manchester, the Fan, Church Hill, Jackson Ward and Shockoe Bottom. They maintained original elements of the building where possible, with brick walls looking out at the 19th-century hum of nearby freight trains rumbling into downtown.
One-and-a-half years after opening, 1717 is one of several Richmond windows into 21st-century work. Individual corporate offices and separate departments give way to nonprofits, businesses and civic groups harvested in a communal network of shared booths and tables, conference rooms, phone banks and plenty of on-demand coffee.
“Sometimes, all it takes is a different environment,” said Rasheeda Creighton, executive director of 1717.
When businesses like Fringe mature, the hope is they’ll move on to bigger heights. But Richmond’s startup scene has a “pay-it-forward” mentality, Peace said. Startup Virginia members and community guests can partake in a range of education opportunities, from legal strategies to finance tools. They take advantage of access to mentors from Capital One and other local businesses, developing relationships that inform their choices. Businesses, nonprofits and civic groups yet to experience and connect with 1717 can reach out to attend community work days, or book events that are in line with day-to-day work activities at the center.
“People don’t ask for help enough,” Murray said. “If there’s one thing I’m glad we’ve done really well, it’s getting help from people who are smarter than us.”
We’re optimistic that by re-imagining work now, Richmond’s startup ecosystem is fueling ideas that will yield the next big wave of homegrown business successes. Spaces like 1717 that break down barriers are an important starting point.
— Chris Gentilviso