The Innovators: Spark's Shervonne Cherry
In this series, Bisnow highlights people and companies pushing the commercial real estate industry forward in myriad ways. Click here to read Q&As with all the innovators Bisnow has interviewed so far.
In order for innovation to matter, the idea needs to be followed by doing the work.
The coworking sphere has particularly come under fire for being consumed by the idea of work rather than its practical application. And the entire real estate industry has been under unprecedented scrutiny over the last year for how relatively few companies are doing the work of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Shervonne Cherry is no stranger to doing the work in any sense, and she is working to tackle problems both in coworking and in diversity and equity in real estate. She has lived the startup life, having started her tech career at Mindgrub as one of five employees in her CEO’s basement. She later served as program director for DreamIt Health, overseeing a 16-week accelerator program in a proto-coworking space within a Cordish Cos. office building in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor neighborhood.
When Cordish repurposed the space to become the first location of its coworking subsidiary Spark, “Lo and behold, I was already there,” as Cherry put it. Granted free rein by the developer’s leadership, Cherry set about building a coworking space reflective of its home city: proud of its roots, painfully aware of its disadvantages and invested in success on a collective level, not scraping and clawing to get ahead of whoever is nearby.
Since it opened on one floor of the building Cordish calls Power Plant Live! in 2015, Spark has grown to fill the entire office component. Much of that space was added so that member companies could continue to grow within Spark’s ecosystem, as its original footprint was full from the day it opened from pre-leasing.
Cherry calls the period in between when a startup first starts to see success and before it has the stability needed to commit to a multiyear lease a “gray area” not addressed properly by either traditional office landlords or the largest coworking operators.
In continuing to address that gray area, Spark is moving into the closest applicable phase of a coworking company’s growth: expanding beyond the hometown where the network of roots is deep and wide into new cities, attempting to replicate the initial success while being different enough to gain the trust of local communities. The second Spark opened in Kansas City, Missouri, in September, and the third is set to open in St. Louis in the coming summer or fall.
One way Cherry looks to overcome the knowledge gap in new cities is by hiring community managers directly from those cities' entrepreneurship ecosystems. They may still have startup ideas of their own on the side, but what matters to Cherry is that they understand and empathize with members.
The St. Louis Spark will be managed by Hayley Johnston, a veteran of the St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective and other startup-focused organizations in the city.
Cherry's focus on the gray area, emphasis on second- and third-tier cities, and efforts to do good while she does business make Cherry a Bisnow Innovator.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bisnow: You said the accelerator and incubator space often gets a lot of hype and a lot of attention because whatever city it's in wants to highlight that sort of entrepreneurship. It's just good business for everyone to point at that. That definitely seems to be even more a point of pride for cities that aren't considered the largest economic engines — the New Yorks, the San Franciscos or even the Chicagos.
As someone who's been in Baltimore a long time, or when thinking about the Kansas City and St. Louis spaces, what do you think that sort of startup environment provides? Conversely, what do they sacrifice by being in those cities and not being the sort of entrepreneur who, as soon as they have an idea, they're taking the first bus out to Silicon Valley, so to speak?
Cherry: For Spark, we really want to target a lot of these underrepresented cities, the second-tier or third-tier cities where you may not think that tech innovation is happening or that there may not be a really fertile ground for growth. For Baltimore, in general, there tends to be the sort of flight that happens, right? We have lots of great universities here, so we have lots of people coming in that are very transient. And then we have folks that are from here that feel that they have to leave in order to succeed. I think that's a mindset that has sort of been baked into a lot of people's brains here in Baltimore.
One of the reasons why Spark targeted Baltimore first is because we knew that narrative was happening. We wanted to prove that you can be here, you can grow your company here with a great cost of living and you're on the I-95 corridor. So proximity to that is key, but also resources and connectivity.
But I feel like if an individual's going to one of those really large markets — there's a lot of capital in those markets, there's no denying that — but when they go to those large markets, they’re just another fish in the pond, another number and not really potentially getting the attention and the platform that they would in some of these second- and third-tier cities.
I think we have this shared experience in Baltimore, where people really want to be successful and kind of “stick it to the man” — the man being everyone who thinks Baltimore is just The Wire. I think that collective energy has really created a really tight-knit community.
Bisnow: I can definitely see that us-against-the-world mentality resulting in a lot of support and, you know, rooting for each other, rather than a Silicon Valley where your success almost inevitably comes at the expense of someone else.
But the reason that people tend to gravitate to those larger markets is because that's where larger funding sources are shopping for places to put capital. So how would you characterize the funding environment specifically? And what are some of the strategies you employ to overcome that funding gap?
Cherry: I mean, there's always going to be great capital opportunities and funding in the larger cities. Typically during any accelerator program, you have a big Demo Day where you invite VCs and angel investors in just to see these pitches from these companies that we've been hosting and fostering. When I was running the program [at DreamIt Health], we actually did a Demo Day roadshow, where we took it across the country to those funders.
For the cities that we’re in with Spark, I think there's this collective thinking of, “OK, well, if they're not going to come to us, we're going to try to find our own funding resources. We're going to try to make sure that we are engaging and collaborating with different types of organizations on a national level to bring that funding into our cities.” For Spark, that comes from our relationships that we've had with organizations like the Kauffman Foundation or LaunchCode. We really try to make sure that we're building bridges between these organizations and our Spark communities and our cities. I think when investors see pillars in the community like a Spark and they recognize that we've had 350 companies over the past five-and-a-half years come through our doors, they say, “Oh, this isn't a dead city; this isn't flyover country.”
Bisnow: That does remind me of a couple of other pitches for smaller-scale coworking spaces and incubators that I've seen. So can you tell me what, if anything, Spark brings that's unique?
Cherry: I know there are a lot of coworking spaces that talk about community-building and support, and I think community has become a really big buzzword for people, but they don't really know what that entails.
From our community managers to our operations managers, they are not foreign to the ecosystem, they're not foreign to the needs of capital or the trials and challenges that come with launching your own business, because many of them have done that or are striving to do that themselves. So that connection and community is not transactional, and that's one thing that we strive for at Spark. Yes, we are a for-profit entity, but we're not like, “OK, thanks for the rent, have a good month!”
Bisnow: I’m sure that, to a degree, you have to fight against the perception that you're asking this entrepreneur to man a desk for you. What’s the recruiting pitch to get them to be community managers rather than just remain pure entrepreneurs?
Cherry: I mean, when I first joined and was kind of launching this initiative, the appeal to me was seeing a platform that is potentially going to be a changemaker in my city. And I can't speak for my community managers, but I think for them, they see that, well, now we have a bit of a track record, right? Spark Baltimore is 5 years old, Kansas City launched in September of 2020 and we're about to launch in St. Louis.
So our Kansas City and St. Louis teams, they really saw what has happened in Baltimore. So they're seeing our partnerships, they’re seeing the work that we've done with various support organizations in Baltimore. Working for a company that truly wants to do good and not just cash a check, I think that really appeals to them.
Even though we are a for-profit entity, I think [our community managers] understand that knowing that you can pay your mortgage, make money on a business venture or an idea but still have really positive aspirations for the clientele and the members. It can be very purpose-driven. I think more and more employees are really embracing that model of wanting to work for organizations that align with their drive to do good in the world.
Bisnow: It's interesting in the light of the civil rights protests of last summer that Baltimore and St. Louis were two of the biggest hotspots for Black Lives Matter when that idea first took hold. I imagine that conversation has to have made it inside the walls of Spark, that sense of social justice. In what way has that affected how Spark does business or how the members at Spark have done business?
Cherry: For me personally, it's a strong pull, especially as a Black woman. 2020 was a crazy year, in more than one way, obviously, and I know that we at Spark want to make sure that we're always aligning ourselves on the right side of an issue. We're making space for all organizations to be able to organize, to connect and meet. We work with nonprofits, especially in Baltimore, and once we are open in St. Louis, we will be doing this with organizations that are literally doing the work.
One of the things that we've been doing for Spark is ensuring that one, we're making space in our place for organizations who need a location to work from; we provide nonprofit-focused discounting for some of these organizations that may have not been able to afford their own workspace.
And then we have organizations like Code in the Schools that we partner with and support, they're focused on bringing computer science education to our pipeline of students. These are elementary, middle, high school students, and they're bringing computer science education to Baltimore city schools. We've been working with them for a number of years, so now they have students now out of high school who are looking for potential internships, they're looking to connect with opportunities.
We want to make sure Baltimore tech companies feel that they don't have to look elsewhere for talent. There are students from our region that, you know, maybe they don't have the prestigious education from the Ivy League or whatever it may be, but they've gone through some really great colleges and universities here in the Baltimore area, and we really want them to stay in-state. So what we've done with Code in the Schools is allow students that are graduating possibilities for internships; we’re doing matchmaking, connecting those individuals with Spark members who are looking for talent.
With our St. Louis community manager coming from the St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, this is something that is very personal for her. Knowing that St. Louis was an epicenter for a lot of things happening last year with regard to social justice issues, I wanted to make sure that we hired an individual for whom this was top-of-mind, that understood not just one subset of the community but all subsets of the community and could really make those connections.
In Baltimore, in particular, we're between 28% and 32% female- and minority-owned businesses now. Hearing that number, you may think, “Oh, why isn't it higher?” But people ask us all the time, how did we do that? And it’s just by being genuine. We're being ourselves. When they come into the space, they see me, a Black face, and they see the other members that are in the space. That knowledge makes people feel comfortable.
At one point two years ago, we had seven moms that were pumping and breastfeeding that needed a designated mother's room. And thank God we had that, because they were able to come to work, pump and lactate in a safe, secure and comforting space within Spark and get on with their day. Not many organizations are really making those efforts for people to feel comfortable. The same thing with gender-neutral restrooms, that was something that was extremely important for us to have in all of our locations. Because we're not making any assumptions about anyone's gender that's in the space.
There was a young lady a few years ago that wanted to have an open session, a safe space for survivors of sexual assault. She said, “Hey, I've gone to a couple places and they're a little worried about having this in their space.”
And I said, “Well, this is something that's extremely important to our ecosystem, and we need to be having more safe spaces like this.” And she did a series of those events in one of our closed-off meeting rooms where people have privacy. And you'd be surprised how many organizations don't make space for that. And I think it's so, so needed.
Bisnow: Startups in your spaces, and in general, are dependent on relationships when they’re so small. It's so easy for anybody to just hire someone who looks like them or that they were roommates in college, etc., etc. Do you consider employment matchmaking part of the equity and social justice functions of Spark?
Cherry: Absolutely. And unfortunately, we've all experienced it or heard about it, where someone gets hired strictly because of who they know or who they're related to. But I have definitely seen that startups are very, very flexible and open-minded, because they're very nimble. I’ve seen members go, “Your resume may not align with what we typically would go for, but I see that you've worked with this organization, or you've had this experience. Let's talk about that. Let's see.”
I’m not saying it doesn't happen in big corporate spaces. But that’s been my experience seeing our members do these interviews on-site. We also utilize Slack for our members to communicate and as a job board, and more and more companies are collaborating there.
Whenever I'm speaking with an organization about partnering with Spark, I'm not looking at just the benefit to Spark; I'm also thinking about my members. We have tons of members on-site that we ask if they’d be willing to do summertime internships or winter internships, and nine times out of 10 that’s exactly what they want to do. Because they know that with Spark, they're not just getting us. They're getting the 140 different organizations and companies that are members with us. And now that we're growing in Kansas City and soon St. Louis, then it's three cities, three communities that they can really sort of grow with.
Bisnow: I get what you’re saying about startups being more creative about who they hire, but insofar as they are willing to get creative, it still matters who gets put in front of them. And I think that speaks to the importance of making sure that you bring the city into the space, rather than have it be like a bubble of entrepreneurship, as plenty of things that could be potentially useful to them go on outside while they’re unaware.
Cherry: Yeah, and also not just act like we're doing a favor to these underrepresented candidates. We're creating the pipeline and continuing to build these bridges and open these doors to showcase to these companies, look at these really great candidates that you would not have found otherwise.
Actually, it's very funny; one of our member companies a few years ago came to us because they saw that we were working with one of our other companies on-site with a diversity drive, and they were doing really well with their hiring of diverse candidates. And the one company came to me and said, “Hey, so how do we do that?”
And it wasn't a negative response. And I think they felt — not shame, but they were a bit sheepish, because they recognized the issue, right? The founder was like, “I look up and we are 10 White guys in an office; what's going on here?”
And what I said was, “No problem. That's so cool of you to recognize it.” So there were multiple people and organizations within the Spark ecosystem and Baltimore that we were able to connect them with. And they were actually able to really get some education, get some learning and really open their eyes.
Bisnow: As we've noted, Spark is a subsidiary of a larger parent company. And with so many of the things that you mentioned about social justice and inclusion and equity, often the popular line about larger companies is that they're just slower to move, and it's just harder for them to adapt to the changing times — and I’m not casting blame. But in terms of how Spark has treated those issues, has that had Cordish’s explicit blessing?
Cherry: Yeah, I mean, trust is key. And I think a lot of people may not realize how agile and nimble Cordish Cos. is. They're really open to new ideas and collaboration, even though they have a corporate structure and multiple offices across the country. But when it comes down to it, it's still a family-owned company and they still have really big ideas about the cities that they're in.
It was not a hard conversation, it was not me asking permission. It was, “This is the mission.”
Entrepreneurship is an equity builder, and in that space, we can level the playing field for a lot of communities. And when I say the spirit of entrepreneurship, that's been the driving force at Cordish for decades. So for them to focus on small business in Baltimore, they did the due diligence. They could have easily have said, “What are the big guys doing? Let's just kind of follow their lead,” right? They could have very easily brought in, I don't even know if this exists, but coworking consultants.
But they had lots of connections, meetings and committees with active entrepreneurs, business owners and the tech community over what the needs were in Baltimore so they could help be a catalyst through this new initiative. And that's how they found me. I can't speak for them personally, obviously. But I don't think that we would now be going into our third city with the same mindset and the same mission if they didn't believe in what we were doing.
CORRECTION, APRIL 5, 2:10 P.M. ET: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Spark St. Louis community manager Hayley Johnston. Cherry spoke about flight in Baltimore from its universities, rather than blight, and she said entrepreneurship is an equity builder. A previous version of this story didn’t accurately convey her responses.