Best of Alaska Business
Putting the ‘Co’
in Company
Coworking spaces as business boosters
By Katie Pesznecker

oworking spaces in the Anchorage area are an attractive and expanding option for entrepreneurs, business travelers, and others who don’t want to invest in real estate but need a physical base to do work.

Whether the single employee of an entrepreneurial start-up, the solo Alaska-based employee for an Outside company, or the remote worker who occasionally craves the familiarity of a well-equipped office space, coworking spaces set the stage for camaraderie, collaboration, and community.

In a coworking arrangement, people from different professions and companies share what’s typically a multi-use office space featuring an array of configurations and varying levels of privacy. Clients enjoy cost savings by not owning or leasing their own space, and they benefit from access to business basics like high-speed internet, printers and scanners, and even kitchen space, complimentary beverages, and parcel acceptance services.

Board and Room
“I think there was a shift nationally, maybe a decade or more ago, from what was a traditional executive office suite to what more modern-day coworking is,” says Katherine Jernstrom, co-founder and CEO of the Boardroom, an Anchorage coworking space that opened in 2013.

“That kind of executive office suite was still a furnished space, but you were just renting a suite in a building where other businesses might work too,” Jernstrom says. “It kind of stopped short there. The shift to coworking came about when there was more of a focus on collaboration and community in those spaces.”

Jernstrom and fellow Boardroom co-founder Brit Galanin were motivated and encouraged by the concept and how they could give it life in Anchorage. Many of their friends were creative entrepreneurs with big ideas and plans but no capital for investing in physical workspace.

“We ourselves wanted to start a business, and there wasn’t a landing pad for entrepreneurs and independent workers and small businesses to a certain degree,” she says. “We were intent on staying in Anchorage, and we wanted those smart independent thinkers to stay too, so we wanted to create a space that had some stickiness, maybe made it easier for people to start companies here because they had other people surrounding them who were peers and collaborators.”

Networking and a chance to connect with others is part of the added value of cowork spaces, according to Holly Spoth-Torres, founder and principal of Huddle AK. Other advantages, compared to no space at all, are stability and privacy.

“Sometimes people need a stable place to do business where you know the WiFi is going to be working and people won’t bug you because they know you’re in an important meeting,” Spoth-Torres says. “That doesn’t happen in hotels or coffee shops, so when I travel, I always seek these spaces out.”

Networking and a chance to connect with others add value to coworking spaces.

The Boardroom

employees in office space
a working station with desk and outdoor scenery behind
2 girls smiling taking a selfie
The Boardroom offers twenty-five open workstations, thirty-three private offices, and six reservable spaces.

The Boardroom

Membership Has Privileges
While the coworking movement was new a decade ago, plenty of models in the Lower 48 existed. Jernstrom and Galanin invested time studying what worked and didn’t, “really thinking hard about how to make the Boardroom specific to the Anchorage market while still leaning on these lessons learned,” Jernstrom says.

Office configuration was key. Recognizing the broad array of business needs, they designed the Boardroom with a mix of private offices, meeting rooms, and ample shared space. Some users preferred one arrangement. Others found the solitude of an office helpful on a deadline day but might gravitate to more social workspace otherwise, Jernstrom says.

The Boardroom began in expansive office space in downtown’s former KeyBank building, a decision very much driven by a desired proximity to arts, restaurants, and hotels, Jernstrom says. When the lease was not renewed due to that building’s planned remodel, “We shopped around, and it gave us a great opportunity because we used those first five years to think about our layout and balance,” she says.

The current space is a renovated Alaska Railroad depot shared with 49th State Brewing Co.’s Anchorage warehouse space, the planned site of a future tap room. This arrangement means free 49th State beverages for Boardroom users.

Other Boardroom perks include free kombucha from 203 Kombucha in Palmer, a discounted rock gym membership, and a shared corporate season pass to Alyeska Resort.

“We’re right between the Coastal Trail and Ship Creek Trail, so we have a couple bikes we keep onsite so people can go ride,” Jernstrom says. “We have a shower on site. We do happy hour every week. We’re doing a trail clean-up and a big barbecue. We try and create events that help our members connect with each other and the community.”

The Boardroom’s current location is in a renovated Alaska Railroad depot; it shares the building with 49th State Brewing Co.’s warehouse.

The Boardroom

4 people sitting in individual seating made of assorted wood, reading and smiling
The First Principle
Location and community were important drivers in the creation of coworking space Umoja in Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood. “Umoja” is a Swahili word that translates to “unity” and is one of Kwanzaa’s seven principles, says Jasmin Smith, president and treasurer of Umoja.

“It basically means you have to work together and uplift each other, and that’s pretty big in the African American community,” she says. “Umoja was birthed from my learned experience navigating as an entrepreneur of color and a parent entrepreneur. I needed space to work out of, and even though some spaces were nice and welcoming, I didn’t always feel I fit. I wanted to create a space where people could come as they are and come as the whole person, not just the business.”

Umoja’s operating vision is creating coworking space that is an “ecosystem of prosocial organizations and businesses that are dedicated to empowering underrepresented communities through a culture of collaboration, mentorship, and entrepreneurship,” according to its website. The business launched in early 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The business weathered that, and today Umoja enjoys a strong and loyal base of clients who inspire and support each other, Smith says.

“It was a no-brainer to be in Mountain View,” Smith adds. “That’s where I live, where my kids go to school, and I wanted to show people that innovation can happen anywhere. Why not have a coworking space that’s meant to uplift culture and community in Anchorage’s most diverse neighborhood? We really wanted people to be able to come and work and find that balance between their personal self and business self while really amplifying their culture and origin, and that really impacts how they do business.”

Like the Boardroom, Umoja’s space includes offices, desks in shared open areas, and meeting rooms. Many of its traits are unique, strategic, and purposeful. For example, there is an onsite children’s playroom, so childcare isn’t a barrier and parenting isn’t a function separate from one’s career. There is also space dedicated to training, an area for podcasting and videography, and a culture community space for community partners like NAACP Anchorage Branch and Pacific Community of Alaska.

“I wanted to show people that innovation can happen anywhere. Why not have a coworking space that’s meant to uplift culture and community in Anchorage’s most diverse neighborhood?”
Jasmin Smith, President and Treasurer, Umoja
“We are a one-stop for all things economic and business, with a focus on culture and individual empowerment,” Smith says. “You might see someone’s dog. You might see kids here. Our space may not be for everybody, but we know who it’s for. I went to some coworking spaces that were beautiful and perfect for someone, but where I was in my life, it wasn’t for me. We are redefining what it means to do business, and we are redefining what business is. We don’t have to adopt traditional Western standards of how you conduct business.”

Umoja’s clientele varies from remote workers who enjoy occasionally working around others to Anchorage visitors seeking space to conduct business. “We have people who were traveling and Googled us and said, ‘Oh this sounded different, I wanted to check it out,’” Smith says. “We have folks who are like, ‘I don’t need an office, it’s too expensive,’ and we have a lot of folks who are just getting started and aren’t ready for that commitment.”

Growing Up, Growing Out
At the Boardroom, users are not called clients or tenants. Rather, they are members. Rates are daily or monthly; some businesses might stay for years, but annual engagements are not an option. Cowork is temporary by design.

Spoth-Torres used to be a Boardroom member, but she isn’t anymore. With her background in trails and parks management for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and Municipality of Anchorage, Spoth-Torres transitioned to indoor spaces in 2014 when she launched Huddle AK as a landscape architecture, planning, and public engagement consulting firm.

Today, Huddle AK’s office space is in the historic Leopold David House in downtown Anchorage. Dating to 1917, the bungalow-style home was built by and for Anchorage’s first mayor. In her business’ early years, however, Spoth-Torres rented office space, often co-leasing with others.

Members of the Boardroom lined up to take a photo
Members of the Boardroom work for different companies, but they work in close proximity. Thus, activities like a trail clean-up (top) or barbecue (bottom) foster connections that might cross-pollinate industries or open new business opportunities.

The Boardroom

Barbecue with Boardroom Staff
“It got to a point where we were working too hard to keep up with IT and all that stuff that you need,” she says. “It didn’t feel professional, and it felt like too much work.”

Spoth-Torres moved her business to the Boardroom at the same time the renovated rail depot opened. She recalls, “I was looking to save a little money. There were two of us working at the time, and two of us moved into the smallest office they had. We made it work and it was great!”

In time, Huddle AK upgraded to a larger Boardroom office and added a third coworker, then expanded to an even larger space used by a team of five.

“I loved being there. I loved the resources,” Spoth-Torres says. “The Boardroom made it so we could grow our identity and provide some stability. It allowed me stability and the facility framework to be able to focus on growing other parts of my businesses. At some point, I felt like we needed to grow up a little bit and have our own identity, so we did that through that downtown property purchase. Now I’m my IT person again. Now I have to figure out the printer and all that stuff.”

It’s bittersweet when members outgrow their Boardroom space and have matured to a point of needing their own offices, says Jernstrom. But that kind of economic growth and business prosperity is a desired outcome of providing coworking infrastructure.

“In terms of the future economy of Anchorage, and what that looks like, it very much looks like seeing more entrepreneurs start and grow businesses here, which leads to job creation, wealth creation, and staying in the state,” Jernstrom says. “Remote workers might be those entrepreneurs, and they tend to fit the profile of liking the things Alaska has to offer with recreation and nature, so if we can find a way to connect them with friends and resources, maybe they stay longer; maybe they choose to move here and start their next company here.”