Can you give us a brief description of your business?
Indiegrove is a community of entrepreneurs in downtown Jersey City. We cater to professionals who do not conform to the traditional way of working. That include businesses getting off the ground, businesses that has been around for some time but do not need a brick and mortar location all the time, or individuals who work for larger companies independently from home. So our clients are really all of those people who need a place to come to and work and not be isolated at home. We provide workspace, meeting rooms, copy, fax, printers and all the things they need so that they can focus and not be worried about the functionalities of their business.
What were you doing before you started this business?
Before I started this business, my career was in economic development. Founding Indiegrove felt like a natural progression in that realm for me. I used to run NYC Business Solution which is the City of New York’s arm of services to assist New York businesses. Even earlier, I worked for an organization call WIBO, which is a nonprofit that helps people write their business plans. So I have always done economic development and I have always focused on providing support to small, minority, and women-owned businesses. This was the next step for that.
What motivates you to do what you do?
What motivates me at Indiegrove is my belief that entrepreneurship is the way that you better change societies. Entrepreneurs contribute creativity, jobs, income - all the things that push us forward in a real organic way. I think you must have growth from that level for any society to stay healthy and to progress. So, for me, my motivation is that I am contributing to that in some way. I am providing a space and a community for people to be more creative, to be able to be more successful. That's what really keeps me going. And I know myself personally, my strength has always been that I am a connector. Someone who brings people together - oh this person will be good to know that person. So I facilitate those introductions here - that has been my role in the community.
When was your first encounter with GNEC?
I met GNEC through contacts that I had forged with individuals at Business Outreach Center, an organization I had worked with during my time with WIBO. When I was looking for financing for Indiegrove, I was running into road block after road block. I had great credit, great experience, and everything that should have make me a perfect package. But, I was a startup business and for that reason none of the traditional lenders were willing to take a risk on me. So I reached out to my connections in the community lending world and Nancy who heads up BOC introduced me to GNEC. She said “go talk to them and see what they can do for you.” I met former staff member Samir Powell at GNEC, to this day I am forever grateful to him. He sat down with me and it was really so refreshing. I ended up getting two different loans from two different community lenders, but what happened at GNEC was so refreshing. He actually sat down with me and asked me to describe what I wanted to do and he took my business plan and looked at the numbers and everything later. He actually spent some time getting into my head to understand what I wanted to do - to see the vision I had for the business. After that meeting, I felt like I had an advocate. I had someone within the world of lending fighting for me. He would call me and give me update. Just this year another GNEC team member helped me refinance my loan which is great because now that the business is established I don't have to personally guaranteed the loans anymore. So it's been an ongoing relationship with GNEC. I feel comfortable working with them on issues around my finances and have confidence that they have the ability to give good guidance and have the right perspective on it. They are not there just trying to make loans. You even see that in the community lending sometimes where they are just focus on their own products and not focus on what's in the best interest for the business. GNEC is very focused on what's in the best interest for the overall business.
Were there any challenges that brought you to GNEC?
The challenge that brought me to GNEC was the trouble that I was having obtaining financing. There were a lot of challenges in the beginning of this business but I must say financing was the most trying of them all. I had a great business plan, I had the lease waiting, but I wanted to have the money in-hand before signing the lease.
How would you say business is doing now compared to back then?
My business is a whole different animal from when I started. The first few months after starting the business was terrifying. Here I am, I have taken out loans on my own personal guarantee, I have built out a space, and I have people literally walking in here and telling me I’m crazy. Real estate agents are coming in, telling me they will buy me out of my lease on-the-spot. The first few months getting to 50 people was trying. I was sitting here slowly trying to build out a community. Until you have about 50 people in a space this size, you walk in and it feels like nobody is here. I had to sell the space all the time. Now, there are days I come in and I am like “who are these people?” I take pride in knowing every one of my members and my staff has to know them. So I will come and ask who is that, I don't know that person. The space has just become its own animal. It has its own life, its own vibe. I am not at the center of that anymore. Rather, I am managing it and trying to facilitate it. But it's taking on its own personality - which is wonderful to see. The business is also just more stable financially. It has come to a place where I am now much more confident with the brand and the community we developed. But running the business continues to be a challenge. Its high overhead. We expanded to a new space and that is challenging. I give credit to the first 10-20 people that joined Indiegrove. I call them the Founders - they took a risk on me at a time when it wasn't clear whether that was a smart move or not.
What has been most rewarding so far even through all the ups and downs of running a business?
The most rewarding part of running this business is watching the businesses grow and seeing them become their own thing. And seeing the community become its own thing like I mentioned earlier. About a month ago, I came in and for the first time I was like where do I sit? I got kind of intimidated and I saw one of my old members sitting here and I was like I don't know where to sit. And she was like “that's wonderful Zahra!” So that's a really wonderful moment.
What would be your advice for someone just starting a business today?
My advice for someone just starting a business today is: Write a business plan and don't take short cuts. I am not a fan of shortcuts around business planning. I think that the process is very important, and it's not just about getting it on paper. Whiteboard sessions are great. Business planning does something to you. It prepares you for going into business. It's not about writing it for lenders or other people. It can even be on a notepad. It just needs to be for you. I do recommend that people write the business plan and get feedback. I also think forming some sort of advisory board for yourself is good. Mine was very informal, it was my husband, two of my early members, and one of my staff members. They were the four people I trusted to go to and talk about ideas. Every time I had a new marketing idea, I would ask them what they thought of it. Create that ecosystem for yourself so that you are not in your head all the time thinking things are great. I would also say: Create a schedule for yourself. Get up every morning and get to work.
Last, would you recommend GNEC services to friends and family?
I would absolutely recommend GNEC services to my friends and family. They are one of the few organizations that I have come across that are truly doing it for the good of the community and the businesses. There are a lot of other organizations out there that do not have the same care for the business. They were there with me from the beginning and they are there with me now so yes absolutely I recommend GNEC.