Way Beyond WeWork: Founder And CEO Pandwe Gibson, On What We Need In Co-Working Spaces
Every day, new horrors unfold in the WeWork drama, from the failed IPO to questionable spending by the company’s ousted founder and CEO, raising questions and doubt about the need for coworking spaces.
Pandwe Gibson, founder and president of EcoTech Visions, is innovating way beyond WeWork.
Gibson’s brainchild is EcoTech Visions — Miami’s first green incubator and maker space. Here, in a 52,000-square-foot space, she helps entrepreneurs create, plan and launch innovative and green manufacturing businesses in South Florida.
“Entrepreneurs in America don’t just need a WeWork. They don’t just need a desk. Entrepreneurs want to make stuff,” Gibson told Moguldom.
EcoTech Visions has office space, event space, maker space, manufacturing facilities and classroom space to support the development of products made with recycled materials. It offers an intense incubation experience for entrepreneurs.
Gibson’s innovative vision has attracted $3.2 million from public and private partnerships and investment from an angel investor. She has helped to train more than 250 South Floridians and educated more than 400 student interns to work in the area.
Gibson talked with Moguldom about the opposition she encountered trying to open her headquarters in Miami, building a team and how she plans to build talent in the South and Midwest.
We’re in the south where people don’t have a reference point for a young Black woman coming up with a business and scaling it on her own. I learned a quick lesson in Miami about race and politics. Just because you have the money doesn’t mean that they’re going to let you buy on the block.Pandwe A. Gibson, CEO of EchoTech Visions
Moguldom: Why did you start EcoTech Visions?
Pandwe Gibson: My grandfather was the first Black regional director of IRS for the Midwest region. My grandmother and great aunt worked on the Manhattan Project — the founding of atomic energy. I come from scientists and mathematicians and people who understood that it’s important to take big swings in order to do anything worthwhile in this lifetime, and it’s our job to be stewards of the planet and to do something that’s going to make a difference for humanity.
Hurricane Katrina helped to frame my life. I’m from New Orleans and Chicago. My mother, grandmother and brother were in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and had to evacuate. We lost our childhood home like 90 percent of the city.
At that time, I was away at school in California. I knew I had answers for many problems, but at 22 years old, I also had enough foresight to realize nobody was going to listen to me at that age. So I went to Harvard.
At Harvard, I went to a leadership program that was focused on organizational scaling. Through that program, I began to frame my first startup which was called ReNEW. We scaled 16 schools over the course of three years, and I became the founding principal of one of those schools.
We have our co-working 52,000-square-foot space located in Miami. There are four laboratories. One addresses the plastics and packaging industry, one the energy field, another the future of food or agriculture tech, and last one, space tech.Pandwe A. Gibson, CEO of EchoTech Visions
After three years, I was recruited to do the work across D.C. and Philadelphia. I was only gone for six months when one of my students in New Orleans was murdered. At that moment I realized two critical things. One, you can’t help children if you don’t create economic opportunities for the adults. And two, there is absolutely no reason to teach people the periodic table if the only jobs in the economy are service jobs, which is what New Orleans, Miami and many communities in America are based on.
I realized traditional schooling was not going to help make a big impact because it is not sustainable. It’s totally based on fear and it just isn’t the right framework. I looked around the country.
Miami had started the deep dredge to open their port to be able to access supermax ships. It seemed like a great opportunity to shift. Miami was positioning itself to be like Singapore — a manufacturing hub. We know in order for manufacturing to work, there has to be robotics and advanced manufacturing.
I started to look at how I could influence job creation, economic development and sustainability, which are things I was passionate about as an educator and with my first startup. That’s how I developed EcoTech Visions.
We have a trucking and logistics company that is in-house that can help drop-ship your product. Entrepreneurs in America don’t just need a WeWork. They don’t just need a desk. Entrepreneurs want to make stuff.Pandwe A. Gibson, CEO of EchoTech Visions
Moguldom: What services or products does EcoTech Visions provide?
Pandwe Gibson: EcoTech Visions is distributive smart manufacturing. Think of us like Kinkos. Instead of printing paper, entrepreneurs can come and print tons of different types of products that are better for the environment and better for them.
Entrepreneurs can create a water bottle company, but the reality is that those aren’t water bottle companies, those are branding companies using toxic plastic bottles. They’re not thinking about the fact that the bottle they’re using comes from oil. They just want to market their water. Gen X, Gen Z, and millennials are starting to care because it’s affecting our health and wellbeing.
The packaging industry is projected to be a $700 billion industry next year. Packaging is saturated with plastic products. We just want a percentage of that market to start to think about how we can use eco-friendly product packaging. So everybody thinking about selling healthy products can also think about the package they give it to their customers in.
We have our co-working 52,000-square-foot space located in Miami where there are four laboratories. One addresses the plastics and packaging industry, one the energy field, another on the future of food or agriculture tech, and last one on space tech.
Currently, we’re in South Florida, but we’re also expanding to Chicago, where our focus will be on health IT. We have 26 entrepreneurs in-house, and we have a virtual community we started in July. We already have 67 members. We have an end-to-end supply chain.
If you were to go to our physical facility and produce a product, we have a trucking and logistics company that is in-house that can help drop-ship your product straight from one location. Entrepreneurs in America don’t just need a WeWork. They don’t just need a desk. Entrepreneurs want to make stuff. EcoTech is that place where you can come make stuff by the pallet, and get it delivered to the door of your purchaser.
Moguldom: What is the EchoTech Visions Foundation?
Pandwe Gibson: When I started EcoTech, B corporations (businesses that balance purpose and profit, and are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment) didn’t exist in Florida. We developed a hybrid entity where the for-profit can dump excess capital into the (EchoTech Visions) foundation to meet some of the major needs of urban entrepreneurs.
For example, Amazon passed on Miami partly because of talent. What you’ll find in the Southeast and in the Midwest — which is where we plan to replicate — is that talent pool is a major issue. The foundation addresses the human capital needs by providing coding, solar and green scout boot camp classes that take high school and college students and allow them to obtain a paid internship inside of the company.
A coding boot camp class can cost upwards of $30,000. We give the classes free to community members that would never have the opportunity to go into these high-growth sectors. After eight weeks, individuals can make a minimum of $20 an hour and upwards with starting salaries of $50,000 a year. In addition to that, the foundation does workforce housing development.
Miami has one of the largest housing crises in the country and we’re focused on affordable housing innovation. We allow our entrepreneurs in the for-profit to prototype some of the technologies they’re producing. For example, we have a container home company and a solar company in EcoTech. We have these companies work together to create a model to prototype in the marketplace. Now they have proof of concept to grow out their business idea on the for-profit side, but they do it for the foundation where we can cut the costs, to be able to provide it at a below-market level for people to live in the city close to where they work. It really is repopulating infill housing and vacant lots in urban blighted areas.
Building a team is one of the hardest things. The first team is never the right team. You’re going to outgrow the first team. Don’t be mad or hurt about it.Pandwe A. Gibson, CEO of EchoTech Visions
Moguldom: Running both organizations must be challenging and rewarding. Can you share any tips or lessons learned in hiring the right people so you could grow your companies?
Pandwe Gibson: Building a team is one of the hardest things. I have to say the first team is never the right team, in my opinion and experience. You’re going to outgrow the first team. Don’t be mad or hurt about it. You may have loved them, but you’re going to outgrow them.
The reality is that in the beginning, you can’t afford the team you really deserve. In the beginning, you take the team you can afford. I love my team right now, but I certainly learned this lesson the hard way like others in Silicon Valley.
As soon as some people hear you received an investment, they bandwagon. In the beginning, you just need somebody. They are not there because they care about the vision or share your passion. It’s the team that comes later after you built a little bit of grit and find out how to build up trust and value in your work relationships. It’s like when you were a kid and had to take the off-brand shoes your parents were buying you. You weren’t getting the Jordans. You get a little older and go and get a job so you can get the shoes you want. It’s very similar when you are building teams.
Moguldom: Have you raised money for your company?
Pandwe Gibson: EcoTech never had a formal fundraising round. We are going into our first raise of $5 million now. I started EcoTech in 2015. I invested $250,000 of my own money to open the first prototype space. Within six months, we had 16 companies.
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After that, we got a ton of coverage from the Miami Herald, Huffington Post, because growth that rapid was unusual. Everybody was kind of wondering, “Who was that girl?” or “Where did she come from?” and “What’s this eco thing?” because that is not what Miami is known for.
We got our first friends-and-family investor to put down another $100,000 on our 50,000-plus-square-foot warehouse which is our headquarters. I learned a quick lesson in Miami about race and politics. Just because you have the money doesn’t mean that they’re going to let you buy on the block.
Our headquarters was going on a street where all white men owned the property and they were going to keep it that way forever. They tried to steal my deposit. My investor and supporter who was a good friend and one of my advisors at the time came in and straw bought underneath me so that I could get my deposit back of $150,000, which was 10 percent of the building’s $1.5-million-worth at the time. She invested $500,000 in cash because she really believed in me.
We’re in the south where people don’t have a reference point for a young Black woman coming up with a business and scaling it on her own. She just really supported me from the beginning and decided to come in and really make sure we were poised for expansion.
The county decided to give a grant to the foundation to provide for the programs. The city of Miami Gardens doubled down and gave us a second facility. Now, we have 52,000 square feet of space and approximately $3.2 million invested by public and private entities to scale both sides of the business. Now, we’re doing our first raise.
Moguldom: What are your expansion plans for the next five years?
Pandwe Gibson: The raise is focused on opening up two new facilities. We’re scouting in Chicago, Dallas, Alabama and a number of different places. We plan to grow out to 102 locations throughout the Southeast and the Midwest region. We can only do two in 2020, possibly an additional five to eight in 2021, and then from there, we’ll scale more rapidly.
We want to build out the first three locations and make sure that they’re built out to the specifications we know are needed for entrepreneurs to be able to thrive and then connect through our virtual community and marketplace. This is what I was trained to do at Harvard.
Our rapid growth can really help meet the needs of American entrepreneurs and bring innovation back to the country again. I also have an awesome partner who is already committed to building an office of the foundation in Melbourne, Australia. We’ve already designed plans for what the growth is going to look like for 2022. The location will make it easier to access Asia and neighboring countries on that side. We are definitely planning international expansion.