Sarah Athanas and Dena Haden
This week’s Gateway Cities Leaders
Cities are shaped by their citizens. From New Bedford to Pittsfield, passionate young leaders are spearheading innovative efforts to reinvent their communities for a new generation. The Gateway Cities Leaders series profiles their work and introduces their ideas, visions, and aspirations to the wider Gateway City world. Is there a young leader in your city that we should spotlight? Please let us know.
Sarah Athanas and Dena Haden are co-founders Groundwork!, the first coworking space in New Bedford. They have been friends since their teenage years growing up on Cape Cod. Groundwork! opened its doors in Dec. 2014.
What motivated you to start Groundwork! in New Bedford?
Dena: We started the company when Sarah moved back to the States in 2014. When we reunited, we wanted to create a community project.
Sarah: I was most recently living in Buenos Aires as a freelancer, and it was a big city with a lot of people freelancing. There were coworking spaces all over the city. When I moved back to the US, I felt lonely and isolated not having the community around.
D: We’re both trained in the arts and initially talked about starting something involving art. We were both working from home and looking for a coworking space. It just didn’t exist in the area, so we decided to make it ourselves. We built the space we wanted to be in.
Did you have any founding principles?
D: We really wanted to have it as open as possible for any type of business or field. New Bedford is such a diverse community with a lot of different entrepreneurs, from artists to farmers. That’s what drew us both to the area. We wanted an open space where the community could drive what the space was going to become.
S: Collaboration is a big theme for us. We’re adamant about the idea that if you provide a physical space with more collisionable hours, meaningful collaboration happens. You can go to a networking event and exchange business cards, but it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s hard to build a relationship off of that. But by working together, sharing a space, building trust and relationships, the collaboration happens naturally.
Have any projects come out of the space yet?
S: We’re still in our beta space but we’ve already seen some really cool things come out of our space. One is SoCoLAUNCH! It’s a meetup group that started from a conversation we had with our members, and it’s up to about 200 people now.
D: We were surprised at how quickly it spawned collaboration. Another project is the SoCo Coding Foundry, which will be a coding academy for underserved communities. Two of our members met, and they came up with the project together. They’re going to operate out of Groundwork! starting this fall.
What have some of your biggest accomplishments thus far?
D: I would say we have really created a strong community that is associated with Groundwork! Everyone has been around already doing amazing work, and I feel like we just came in as a platform. That’s what we set out to do.
S: We recently hosted a pretty large event in the new space we’re moving into. Jay Ash [Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development] gave the keynote, the New Bedford mayor was there, and prominent community members showed up. There was such positive energy and excitement about the city. It’s gratifying to feel like we have a part in that by bringing people together.
Can you tell me a bit more about your new space and any other upcoming projects?
D: We’ll be opening our larger space in November. It will allow for more people to be involved in Groundwork!, for more connections to be made, and deeper relationships that will definitely spoke outward.
S: We’re collaborating with Pidalia, a corporate member of Groundwork! to host series of lectures called Night Shift Sessions. They will be evening events with wine, food, and music. There isn’t really anything like it in New Bedford right now, and we think it’ll be fun for the community. The first one is scheduled for early December.
What are some of the challenges of working in New Bedford?
D: The only challenge that we are facing is that what we’re doing is kind of new the area. In Boston, Providence, and other larger cities, coworking is not a new term or concept. We’re educating people here on what coworking is. It’s been a challenge, but we’re breaking into a new area, which is exciting. As a forger, it definitely takes a lot more energy.
S: Sometimes things more slowly than we’d like, especially with buildout and construction. But we understand that city has limited resources, and we’re patiently getting things done as fast we can.
And the benefits?
S: I love New Bedford. It reminds me a little of Buenos Aires because it’s a port city that has cobblestones streets, historic architecture and big art influences. Those elements drew me here. It’s a close-knit community of people that care about the city and its future. We’ve been so welcomed and embraced and supported by everyone. It’s humbling. We walk out of meetings sometimes and say, “Wow is this really happening?”
D: Personally, I love that the community is very open to new ideas and innovation. As soon as we brought the idea to the Community Economic Development Center, they were on board. That’s honestly how we are where we are now. It’s all because of the community support in New Bedford.
S: Sometimes it’s hard to put into words. It was a feeling I got when I first came here. It has good energy; it’s urban enough but not an overwhelming city. There’s something about the people and the place.
D: When I first moved here for school at UMass Dartmouth, it was 2000. For 15 years, I’ve been watching it grow. It’s been slow, but it’s starting to open up. It’s also a city full of artists. As an artist myself, I don’t feel like I’m treading against the water. You’re a part of the city, no matter what work you’re doing.
How do you see yourselves in relation to the community?D: I’m part of New Bedford Open Studios, which is an art group that organizes studio tours. Sarah and I also are both co-organizing TEDxNewBedford, which will be Nov. 6. We have all our speakers lined up, so we’re excited about that.
S: I’ve lived all over the world and the US, and I really chose New Bedford after all of that. For people who have been living here their whole lives, that can be shocking. As someone who is an outsider, I can see what it really has to offer. It’s a unique place where you can listen to and support what people are doing. I’m not doing anything new; I’m just putting support under what people are already doing.