In 2012, Marnee Chua and Jessie Rymph tried to launch a coworking space with onsite childcare in Seattle. There were numerous hurdles with the project, however, including finding the right space to bring coworking and childcare together and the fact that licensing for childcare is restrictive and expensive.
The two put the project on hold and opened Works Progress, a coworking space in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. But the coworking and childcare idea persisted, with Works Progress community members expressing frustration at the challenge of finding childcare while they worked.
“There was still a bug in Marnee’s ear that there had to be a better way,” says Marlene Mejia Weiss, Executive Director of Outreach at THE INC., and board member of the Women’s Business Incubator (WBI), an organization in Seattle offering coworking with an onsite preschool, toddler room, and cowork/coplay room. “Coworking alone wasn’t solving the bigger issue of finding flexible, affordable childcare.”
In 2015, Chua, Rymph, and several Works Progress members formed WBI, designing it as a nonprofit with a social mission to help women succeed in business and in their careers. The WBI recently renamed the coworking and childcare aspect of the organization THE INC.
I spoke with Mejia Weiss about the early days of the WBI, how a partnership with a local church brought the project to life, and how THE INC. is changing the way parents work.
Cat Johnson: When the WBI launched, what kind of support and services did it offer?
Marlene Mejia Weiss: They had monthly networking events and they created a pop-up, coworking with childcare series at a temporary location. Then we got this amazing opportunity: one of our board members saw that there was a preschool space opening in a church in a great location in a residential area in North Seattle. It was close to the I-5 highway so folks from other parts of the city could easily come to the location. The amazing thing was, it already had the childcare component because it used to house a preschool. It had the classroom, it had the little chairs, the toys, all the materials.
The church, St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, was open to what we were trying to do and the lease was very reasonable. That really helped us as a startup nonprofit to get our legs underneath us and try it out. It has been so helpful having a great partner in them.
How does THE INC. work? Do you have membership plans?
We do have a membership plan which is $35 every three months. Members get access to online purchasing of session bundles for our preschool room, hourly bundles for our toddler room or a cowork/coplay room pass and online booking. Membership also includes access to free or discounted workshops, classes and events that we continue to develop based on the needs of our members. Last week we had a very successful Productivity Hacks workshop, we just launched a weekly accountability group for our INC. members, and we are piloting a weekly Spanish Immersion program for children in the Fall.
There are three services at THE INC. The Playschool is divided into two rooms: the preschooler room and the toddler room. The Preschooler room is for children 2.5—5 years and has a dedicated preschool teacher. It follows a license-exempt preschool model which allows us to provide four hours of care for each individual child per day. The preschooler room currently offers a morning session each day, but we anticipate adding an afternoon session soon depending upon demand.
In mid-July we launched the toddler room due to continued demand for flexible, affordable care options for toddlers since there aren’t many options serving this age group in Seattle. This room follows a drop-in model that is used by gyms and grocery stores across Washington. We can provide hourly care for up to four hours with a minimum of two hours for children who are steady walkers up to 2.5 years old, as long as the parent remains onsite. THE INC. has partnered with local babysitting referral service Spilt Milk Nannies to staff this room with a quality, experienced caregiver.
The third option is the cowork/coplay room which is a shared, community-building room for parents and their children to work and play in together. This option costs $50 per month.
How do the session bundles work?
We offer flexible childcare, so parents can choose the days they want to come in. They can buy bundles of sessions—which are four hours—in the preschooler room, bundles of hours for the toddler room, or a cowork/coplay pass for $50 per month. With an INC. membership, you’re able to buy 5, 10 or 20 session bundles for the preschooler room or 10, 20, or 40 hour bundles for the toddler room. INC members can purchase bundles, schedule their bookings and connect with other members all online.
What makes us unique is that access for a coworking spot and a Playschool spot is all packed into one price. Whatever you pay for the preschooler or toddler rooms also gives you access to the coworking room. The affordability piece is really important to us so we do our best to consider this when we set pricing. It’s a constant juggle as our model evolves but we want to be able to serve a range of parents.
Having the preschool already on-site seems to be a key piece of this project. Do you plan to scale THE INC. to other neighborhoods? How could you do that?
We would love to expand to other neighborhoods. In fact, with all the press we’ve received, and all the good reviews from our members who are building our community by spreading it to their friends and their neighborhoods, we already have interest from a few other Seattle neighborhoods.
We’re just focusing on our first location right now. We’ll continue to refine it and get it to the point of sustainability. There are a lot of processes we’ve built from the ground up and we’re just getting systems in place to manage things smoothly because there are a lot of moving parts.
Our hope is that we can package this up and move it to other neighborhoods. But each hub would be reflective of what that community wants. There are a lot of unused church spaces out there. I don’t see why we can’t bring it to other locations and perhaps other cities.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with the WBI and THE INC?
A lot of our challenges have stemmed from just trying to build a sustainable coworking with childcare model from the ground up. It’s a lot of trial and error.
The childcare part definitely adds another level of complexity to an already unique operation, but being set up as a nonprofit, really taking the time to build our community and listen to their needs, plus having Sarah Hines as the Executive Director of Operations—she’s our operations mastermind, a great team of board members, staff and volunteers who want to see this idea take off, has helped us through those challenges.
Another challenge is explaining what coworking is and educating parents that this is a way to simplify their life. You can actually bring your kids and get work done. It sounds too good to be true. We tell them that we’re trying to solve that problem they’re struggling with. It’s been interesting to help parents understand this and we’re trying to address this better with the rebrand of our space as THE INC., which we are close to unveiling soon.
WBI and THE INC. are part of the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance. Has that changed your perspective about coworking? What’s the importance of being part of an alliance of other space operators?
I’m fairly new to coworking. Before I had kids, I was in fairly traditional corporate offices. The WBI has been most of my experience as I’ve on-ramped back to a career. It’s been fascinating to watch and be exposed to this coworking movement. I’ve realized I’m a more collaborative person and I guess that’s why I always felt off in more traditional offices. It’s really cool to be part of something unique that’s constantly changing, and meeting other people who are open to collaborating and connecting.
Flexibility is really important, and so is collaboration—THE INC. is a community. Just knowing there are other moms —and we have a few dads—who understand this parenting stage of life I’m currently in, and they’re all willing to help and share resources is what makes THE INC. so special. I see that sense of community in the other Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance member spaces.
You can get in the weeds with operating your own space. Coworking is still such a new movement and there are unique challenges to operating a space. To step back and meet other people who understand those challenges and share resources is wonderful. I love that each space has its own personality and flavor and community, and yet we all have the same goal of trying to help one another.
To clarify, WBI is the nonprofit and THE INC. is the space. Is that correct?
WBI is the nonprofit parent organization and THE INC. is its flagship program. We decided to rebrand the space because the name wasn’t reflecting the community that we serve and we wanted the messaging to focus on creating a workspace for parents with onsite, flexible, affordable childcare. There was some confusion from parents whether or not this space was right for them so we wanted to have a clearer message for them and be more welcoming to all parents and not just moms.
Also, WBI has more of a very professional, businesslike, tech feel to it. While we have some members who are in tech and are entrepreneurs, a lot of our members work in other fields, such as nonprofits, medical writing, public policy, education, career coaching, graphic design, photography, arts, real estate, property management, film production, writing and editing, marketing, and much more.
We also have quite a few students, so it’s a great variety of experiences and backgrounds. We wanted the name of our space to reflect our community but still tie back to Women’s Business Incubator. THE INC. has a lighter, more approachable, welcome tone. We’re incubating a new way to work and raise your young children.