Kelly Fitzgerald Built A Home for Chattanooga’s Startup Community By Focusing On ‘Human Design’

Kelly Fitzgerald knows that the difference between an office space and a community is the intention behind its design. The founder of Chattanooga’s first — and one of its largest — co-working spaces, Society of Work, Fitzgerald utilizes her background in architecture to craft the experience of her members into a vibrant, collaborative way to work.

“I got degrees in both Architecture and Interior Architecture. I worked at a few different architecture firms before realizing that I was more interested in the human side of design and not so much interested in how a wall goes together,” says Fitzgerald.

Society of Work opened in 2014 and quickly became a place for Chattanooga creatives and entrepreneurs. In 2015, the soon-to-open Edney Innovation Center, a startup hub in the heart of Chattanooga’s Innovation District, approached Fitzgerald and asked her to relocate the co-working space to Floor Six of The Edney.

Since then, the concept has expanded to another floor and built up its community-based energy even more as the City of Chattanooga continues to grow its innovation and tech economies. Fitzgerald shares with Hype more on how she translated  her architectural work into “human design”, how she wouldn’t have seen her current success had she not been laid off another job, and her view on Gig City’s startup scene.

How did you turn an architecture background into founding/managing one of Chattanooga’s largest and most vibrant co-working spaces?

I was really looking for a way to channel my interest on the human side of design (versus how to keep water away from a building). Design is a huge part of our everyday experiences in our world. And, many times people don’t realize the thought that has gone on behind that experience of creating space.

That said, I’ve tried to create a space that welcomes all persons while offering various types of ways and environments for people to do their best work. We’ve seen our community thrive in our environment. And, we’ve seen different personality types migrate towards different work areas.

Why did you decide to start this endeavor?

I was working with local designers on projects outside of the office when I was working in the field of architecture. I realized that they all worked in coffee shops and weren’t happy with that solution. They wanted a place to meet clients in a central location. I started thinking about what those solutions looked like and came across the concept of co-working. I started to build out a business plan and was laid off from my architect job about six months later. If I hadn’t been pushed like that, I might not have ever jumped into the world of small business or taking the risk to open a co-working space.

Describe the evolution of Society of Work and where you are headed.

The idea started as more co-working space than office space. As it turns out, what people really wanted was a good mix. We’ve adapted to that and are constantly in an iterative state. In April of this year we opened an additional 8,000 square feet of space and just announced the opening of a 2nd location coming January 2018 that allows us to offer more office space to growing teams. As a small business we are trying to figure out how to make everything work at a larger scale.

Why are you passionate about helping the startup community?

It’s the people that I’m most passionate about — both the startup community as well as the small business community. I want to see people succeed and if I can help in that process, whether that’s making connections or being around to help brainstorm, then I feel like I’m part of something bigger. The success of this community is one small part that shapes the success of our city as a whole.

What do you think an entrepreneur most needs and how do you help provide it?

I believe a strong community is an entrepreneur’s biggest asset. From day one, the community of people at SOW has been the most valuable thing we offer. We have experimented with programming over the past few years, but have found that social connections beget professional connections.

How does a community play into the entrepreneur’s overall journey?

We’ve been fortunate enough to see entrepreneurs grow their business and their team. People are more equipped to quickly grow their business if they have the right resources around them. We work hard and very intentionally to connect our members with both each other and local resources that we have worked with personally. Last year we did a survey and found out that 80 percent of members had worked together and 70 percent of those people didn’t know each other before joining Society of Work.

What has been your biggest success or best “AHA” moment hus far?

There are so many. Most recently, I’d say that I’ve realized that when people move out of Society of Work, it’s a good thing because they’re growing their team or the business is adapting. We’ve done our part to help them get to that point and we need to celebrate their success and realize that we had a small part in that success.

Biggest stumbling blocks and/or failures?

Stumbling blocks: Definitely coming into a small/medium size market that is unfamiliar with the concept of co-working. In a town where coffee shops don’t limit Wifi it’s been interesting trying to prove our worth. For the most part we’ve done this successfully, but it’s a constant battle for sure.

Failures are all over the board — including our recent attempt to change management softwares which quickly became a nightmare for us but also for our members. We owned the fact that it was a nightmare and ended up going back to what we started with. Everything is an experiment.

How does Chattanooga weave into your story?

I never thought I’d stay in Chattanooga. However, Chattanooga has an energy about it that keeps me here. We have a very supportive community and I feel like I can make a mark here which wouldn’t necessarily be the case in a larger city.

What do you still have to learn?

A lot. Not sweating the small stuff is sometimes the hardest lesson for me. I am constantly reminding myself of that.

Mary Stargel is a native born Texan who navigated the globe before landing in Chattanooga, TN. As Community Manager of Society of Work and Program Manager for the Edney Innovation Center, she is surrounded by thinkers, starters, and doers. Her favorite thing about Chattanooga is the community’s love for solving problems together.

Interview and Q&A by Mary Stargel, development by Holly Beilin. Photos via Society of Work.