Work Different: How One Woman Encourages Us All to Take Care of Our Future Self

Today’s guest blog post is from WTF Collaborator, Amy King of Nested Strategies. 

Jessica Knapp at GCUC 2015 Berkeley

In May, I convened with my tribe at the annual GCUC: Global Coworking Unconference in Berkeley, CA, where people from around the world gather to support each other in pioneering the burgeoning coworking movement. It’s a three day event where we all geek out on  building community, workspace design for flexibility, technology, and how the way we work is changing almost daily.

I had the good fortune of connecting with a particularly exuberant woman, Jessica Knapp, a New Zealander from Los Angeles, who was a moving target, buzzing around to help her Berkeley NextSpace peers as hosts of the unconference. Jessica is the NextSpace Culver City Community Curator, which means that she does everything from manage the operations and finances of the thriving coworking space, to developing meaningful relationships with her members and accelerating serendipity that helps them in business and life. Her personal journey and how she got her job as Community Curator truly moved and inspired me. Here’s an excerpt from our incredible conversation:

Q: How is your coworking space designed and what do you offer the members as far as workspace?

A: NextSpace Culver City has a very open space plan. In terms of the physical space, we have a lot of open doors and lots of light when we can and a lot of it is open to conversation – you can easily converse with people. The interior design has lots of vibrant orange and it’s filled with redwood tables. I try to get lots of plants into the space because we don’t have a whole lot of natural light and I LOVE being outside as a New Zealander, so big plants/ low maintenance – that kinda thing. We have a big open cafe space and we have some other back areas where we have dedicated work stations and we sort of curate those spaces a bit. And we have 13 dedicated offices around the perimeter of the space. They range from 3 to 8 person size offices. We also have a dedicated workstation nook and it’s a quiet area. That’s another really nice facet to offer our members. The kitchen is a fun area – the coffee pot is where everyone talks. 

Q: If you were to have an elevator pitch story for why your coworking space is so special, what would it be? What makes people the most passionate about it?

A:  The great thing about NextSpace is that we work really hard so that people can create life and work on their own terms. And we’re kind of like their backup crew. We’re the great connectors – a great community of support.

When I give tours and introduce people to the community, I’ll ask them a few key questions then introduce them to someone like, “this is Lloyd – he’s a writer just like you – and he works on this. Do you want to go to lunch with us on Thursday?”

As a foreigner, I’m very in tune to people who are new to the city, or foreigners who are looking for an existing community to plug-into immediately. It’s hard to make friends in LA – authentic connections. I think that because of our physical location in Culver City, we’re not super Hollywood, we’re not super tech, we have this group of regular people who are freelancers or entrepreneurs, who are looking to live life and do work in a different way.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your journey to becoming a Community Curator at NextSpace:

A: Back in 2012, I attended South by Southwest while I was working for a tech company.  I was the Executive Assistant to the CEO and President. I was working insane hours – underpaid and undervalued and the company had organized this fantastic trip to SXSW and I got to go along.

I went to see a talk called “Why SXSW helped me quit my job”. I was at a miserable point in my life and I was thinking, “Do I leave America and cut my losses?” I didn’t feel done and felt that I’d worked too hard to get where I was. I thought I could do better, workwise.

So, I went to this talk and the speaker had nothing valuable to offer. He had a trust fund to fall back on, no relatable tips or tricks, no life hacks, nothing like that. Yet, there was this room full of people who were desperate. Desperate for an answer, desperate for something.

During the Q&A session, a female executive shared how her staff were unhappy with the company at large, but loved working on their team. She asked some amazing questions about how she could retain her staff in this environment.  I was moved to tears by what she had to share and then as the conference was dissipating it struck me that I needed to talk to that woman.

I chased her down on the street and said, “You probably think I’m crazy, but I just loved the questions you had to ask and the way you think about your employees.” I immediately burst into tears and confessed that I was so unhappy and I didn’t really know what to do with myself.

“Oh honey, me too,” she said and we both had a cry and a hug. She said, “you are a young vibrant woman and you don’t have to be subservient to these people. You can do better for yourself.”

She didn’t know me at all, but we had this soul connection on the street in Austin somewhere. When I got back to LA, we connected via LinkedIn. Because of her encouragement, when a friend asked me if I would be interested in running her coworking space, I was able to finally admit how miserable I was. I had to fake a doctor’s appointment to find time to interview for the job, over lunch. Needless to say, I landed the job and it changed my life forever.

Q: If someone was to say that they were unhappy with where they worked, what would your advice be to them?

A: I’ve actually helped a couple of friends transition into freelance work. First, I believed in them. When someone tells me that they’re unhappy with their work, I first say to them, it doesn’t have to be like that. And we don’t have to kill ourselves or wait until retirement to travel to the Mediterranean. This might sound extreme, but every day I think to myself, what if I got hit by a bus tomorrow? How pissed would I be with myself?

My second philosophy is to always take care of my future self. Now the future self thing might be something as simple as getting gas the night before because I’ve got an early start going into the office the next day, so I’m not panicking in the morning trying to get gas in rush hour traffic. Or, it might be something as simple as having a conversation with somebody; just putting down my phone for 20 minutes and having a conversation and connecting with people.

Q: You were talking about plants and access to nature and how you get those needs met of in your NextSpace – being in a space that’s collaborative, well-designed, etc. How else do you find balance and keep sane in your workspace?

A: I do think about those sorts of design and wellbeing needs. We have a really cool open space area that helps with people’s wellbeing. Taking time for people and taking stress breaks is super important to me. I’ll think – oh this spreadsheet is kind of driving me crazy or my inbox  is kind of out of control. Then, I think nothing’s urgent and I just close my computer and go sit with my community. I like to chat with them and make sure that I’m easily accessible.

At the coworking conference- they were talking about how as community managers, we create serendipitous moments. Like getting a group to head to lunch together,then mid-walk to lunch, two people start conversing and one realizes that the other could help them take their business to the next level. These situations create vital connections for people.

My colleague invented “Taco Walko” which is basically eating tacos and walking around the block on the streets of Culver City. If the streets of Culver City could relay all of the conversations I’ve had – I’ve worked out all of life’s issues with a couple of my colleagues, who have become good friends and mentors.

We’ve walked those streets of Culver City, and we’ve cried and yelled and are always there for each other. The community really cares about keeping the tradition going.

When I first started, they took it easy on me. They believed in me, and took the care to train me up to where I needed to be to make this place successful. Not only were my colleagues supportive of me, but the whole community is invested in the place running smoothly and succeeding through changes in staff and everything else. It’s this culture that I try to perpetuate.

Lisa Whited