August 23, 2017

Nonprofit Athensmade Wants to Help Entrepreneurs Succeed in Athens

Photo Credit: Nicole Adamson

Athensmade founder Mary Charles Howard at a networking event at Cine Aug. 15.

From making videos to doing web design to running nonprofits, most of the 30 or so people attending a recent Creative Coffee at Ciné seemed full of energy and ideas and happy to tell their stories and network with others.

People such as Harlo Petoskey, who moved to Athens a year ago for his wife’s job at UGA. He works remotely at home—designing websites and apps and plotting digital strategy for corporate clients—and doesn’t know many people in town. He met some at the event. Or Kieran McMaster, a recent graduate of the University of Dundee in Scotland, who wants to get into circular design and closed-loop services for companies. He’s in Athens because his girlfriend is at UGA, and he, too, was busy meeting and greeting.

Smiling and nodding through the event was Mary Charles Howard, whose nonprofit, Athensmade, was the sponsor. A UGA graduate in landscape architecture, Howard joined Athensmade in 2016. Before doing so, she started Athens Food Tours in 2010, which morphed into Georgia Food Tours. She has since sold the business.

“How many of you would support a makerspace?” Howard asked the attendees as the meeting was winding down. “A co-working space?” Most hands went up. The enthusiasm in the Ciné room mirrored Howard’s own.

According to its website, Athensmade exists to “educate, support and promote homegrown brands, entrepreneurs and creative professionals. We work to promote the stories of local innovation and business growth.”

The local government has given the nonprofit $50,000 in seed funding—it will need to provide matching money—to assist the non-manufacturing sector of the local economy. The focus is on entrepreneurs and small businesses that are looking for space or start-up money.

The idea, Howard said, is to brand Athens as a place that’s friendly and supportive to creative people who want to start their own businesses, whether they’re self-employed, planning to hire 10 front-end digital developers or hoping to create a blacksmithing shop. She wants Athens to be known for creative collaboration as well. Developing and promoting that brand will, she hopes, bring other creative businesses to town.

Earlier this month, county officials, people from the tech incubator Four Athens and others associated with Athensmade visited Asheville and Greensboro, NC, to gather ideas about creating shared work sites and building an entrepreneurial ecosystem and innovation district.

“We want to make it easy for people to work with each other and share ideas,” Howard said. “We’re trying to figure out what would be the best place for such a safe creative space. We want to get people to talk to each other.”

The question is: Where is the best location for a shared work space? Shared office-type work places—for those who work on laptops—in other cities usually have a Wi-Fi connection, a printer, a copier, various office supplies, an address and numerous desks. People pay a nominal fee to take full advantage of the facilities. Others—such as the Broad Collective, a now-defunct Athens lifestyle website and marketing firm—have tried to start such a facility but failed.

Howard likes the energy and mix of businesses in the Chase Park warehouses along Tracy Street—at the meet-and-greet, she was wearing a scarf she bought from NeckLush, one of the newer companies in the complex. Perhaps it would be appropriate to find a shared space somewhere between those businesses and the medical partnership on Prince Avenue?

“I’m not sure if we would build something or renovate something, or whether it would be funded by a private investor or a public bid,” Howard said. “We’re looking at different property and talking to people.”

Howard has also contacted officials at UGA and has convinced them to allow students to fulfill their requirement for experiential learning at an appropriate Athens business. She wants students seeking work guidance at UGA’s career center to think of locating in Athens.

“We want the conversation to be, are you staying here?” Howard said. “Because maybe some of those staying here will start their own businesses.”