From the outside, The Space seems like an ordinary suburban home: white porch, gray siding and a burgundy front door. But that front door is protected by a complex “August lock,” which opens only to an app uploaded on members’ smartphones.
And inside sit thousands of dollars worth of high-tech equipment, white-boards covered with scribbles from brainstorming sessions, and, on a good day, a dozen or so Wheaton College students trading ideas.
In certain ways, The Space is exactly what it sounds like: a physical space located at 815 Irving Street, just a few blocks north of Edman Chapel. But in other ways, The Space seems to be marked by contradiction.
While the leadership team wants word to spread about The Space, they decided not to advertise on campus, and instead aim for a word-of-mouth “buzz.” And although The Space is a center for student entrepreneurship made up exclusively of Wheaton students, it is decidedly unaffiliated with the college. The student leaders describe The Space as “unconventional,” a descriptor that, like The Space itself, is hard to pin down.
That’s appropriate — The Space wants to encourage thinking outside of the box. According to Natalie Tanner, one of The Space’s student leaders, “The vision behind The Space is to facilitate innovation and collaboration. Our dream is that this is where businesses will originate.”
It’s also a place that’s never been officially connected to the college. The Space first appeared in January of 2015, headed up by then-senior Andrew Shadid. This past year, The Space moved into the house on Irving Street; it began accepting members towards the end of last semester, and officially opened at the beginning of this semester. According to former Wheaton professor Paul Condrell, the group’s financial backer, The Space is not “intentionally” separate from Wheaton: “it’s just that we don’t know how we could affiliate.”
This inability to affiliate could be rooted less in practicality than in ideals. Several student leaders attributed The Space’s independence to their distaste for “red tape.”
The Student Activities Office oversees all official Wheaton College clubs; Ted Cockle, current head of the SAO, told The Record that to become a college club, student groups go through a brief chartering process that includes choosing an advisor and drafting a constitution for approval from the SAO.
Cockle noted that several business-focused clubs currently exist under the SAO, including the Wheaton Business Club, Thrive4, and Globus.
According to junior Mercer Schuchardt, one of the student leaders at The Space, most of these college-sponsored clubs still encourage a conventional kind of business. The Space wants to push against “typical” business ideas; they don’t want to attract people looking to polish resumes. The Space aims for innovation, and its leaders claim that this innovation could not easily occur in the atmosphere of an official college club.
The Space requires members to follow the Community Covenant, but otherwise aims to avoid conformity and model creativity. And while the SAO is unaffiliated with The Space, Cockle noted that independent groups like The Space help further the SAO’s goals for student development and community.
Senior Taylor Schuster, The Space’s current president, pointed out that currently, “The Space is itself an entrepreneurial venture,” and that leaders like it that way.
Entrepreneurial ventures need financial backing — for The Space, this comes from Paul Condrell, a former visiting Wheaton professor who currently lives and works in China. Condrell is an entrepreneur himself; he and his wife run a business along with a ministry in China. He has taught Chinese and several business/economics courses during Wheaton’s Fall semesters for the past four years.
Condrell and his wife wanted to encourage student innovation by funding and supporting the creation of The Space. They currently own the house at 815 Irving, and pay for all of the technology and furniture inside.
Condrell does not pay for snacks, coffee, or Wifi — a $15 per-semester membership charge covers that. Membership grants students access to The Space and its technology 24/7. A team of student leaders, led by Schuster, is in charge: sophomore Natalie Tanner, juniors Emma Allen, Bodie Taylor, Schuchardt, and senior Josh Wright.
Last week, they hosted Chaplain Blackmon, who gave a master class on the importance of letter-writing. Another recent master-class focused on how to make the perfect cup of coffee in a dorm room.
What does coffee have to do with business ventures? Once again, The Space’s leaders emphasize their desire to avoid Wheaton “norms.” According to Allen, “We’re trying to find interesting people, who are taking unusual routes to success.”
People interested in mastering the art of coffee brewing, the leadership team reasoned, might not be the same people to become involved in the Student Alumni Board or another SAO club. But they would probably have a lot to offer in terms of creativity and expertise in a new start-up.
According to Schuster, The Space hopes to attract students who “want to use their unique skills and abilities to help other students who are starting sweet endeavors.” One of the main goals of The Space is networking, which will then hopefully lead to business development.
Some of this business development already takes place in The Space. Senior Connor Jenkins is one of the co-founders of Proxi, the winner of last year’s Shark Tank.
Jenkins told the Record that Proxi met at The Space every week last year before the final Shark Tank round, and named The Space as “a contributing factor to Proxi’s success.” Proxi continues to meet there regularly. Other members, like Schuchardt and Allen, use The Space to plan post-grad business ventures.
The physical layout of The Space is fairly simple. The five downstairs rooms include a conference room, a drafting room walled with whiteboards, a small kitchen, and two sitting rooms.
Upstairs, three bedrooms have been converted into “thinking spaces” — one is dubbed the “Dreamatorium” because of the creative atmosphere encouraged by the playful, primary colored cube cushions that function as chairs and the mirrors that members can scribble dry-erase marker over. The basement rooms hold most of the technology — most notably, a 3D printer and MacPro — along with several couches and a lecture hall.
The Space’s student leaders are optimistic about continuing entrepreneurial growth at Wheaton College. “Our hope,” Schuster said, “is that The Space will continue to serve students, acting as a sandbox where they can ideate, build, fail, destroy, and build again.”