Shannon O’Neill wants to start coworking again.

O’Neill is the founder of sexual wellness startup MMURE, which sells vibrators, lube, and other accessories. She joined the Philadelphia location of coworking space The Yard in December 2019 to escape the isolation of her home. She liked the flexible contracts and the community of entrepreneurs that shared advice over pizza in the communal kitchen.

“That’s where a lot of the value of coworking spaces comes from,” O’Neill said. The pandemic, however, has severely limited this support network.

“It’s so much harder to connect with someone that you’ve never met over a computer,” she said. “You lose some of the magic of being able to talk to someone every day and have access to their expertise.”

Coworking spaces are shared workplaces that allow members to rent out desks, offices, or suites and typically offer amenities like free high-speed internet, office supplies, and coffee. What makes coworking spaces attractive isn’t just the cost-savings but also the innovative environments they cultivate. Some have attempted to capture the benefits of these business incubators online with mixed results. And as social-distancing requirements stretch on, many in the startup community fear that a generation of Philadelphia entrepreneurs is being denied an essential ingredient of success: each other.

Sally Guzik, who is the general manager of CIC Philadelphia, walks along the 6th floor at their location in Philadelphia, PA on March 8, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Sally Guzik, who is the general manager of CIC Philadelphia, walks along the 6th floor at their location in Philadelphia, PA on March 8, 2019.

Since the pandemic started, Maher and others in 1776 have tried to make that community virtual. They created a new membership level for online-only resources while the offices remain closed, providing access to exclusive programming, a mentor database, and an online portal to connect with other entrepreneurs. They’ve also opened several online workshops to the public, covering startup basics like raising capital or assembling a C-Suite team.

But the transition to a virtual community hasn’t been easy. “When you’re not physically coming together, you lose the social aspect of that water cooler chatter, of people just getting to know each other,” Maher said. And virtual resources are only a feasible option for those with regular access to the internet and a private work area at home, she added.

While 1776 has adopted new social distancing protocols and adjusted membership costs for those who continue to use their physical office space, Maher knows that this doesn’t fully resolve the pandemic’s limitations. “But we’re trying to continue to serve the neighborhoods we’re in and have people know that our workspaces are a safe environment for those able to come in.”

CIC Philadelphia, the local branch of a national network of coworking spaces, faced even more challenges for members using their laboratory space. “We actually never fully closed,” said CIC Philadelphia Director Sally Guzik. “We had several companies that were deemed essential businesses, sometimes because they were lab scientists researching the COVID vaccine, so that kept us open.”

Like 1776, CIC has also implemented new social distancing and cleaning protocols to keep all areas of the coworking space open at limited occupancy. But much of the community has moved online.

One program that CIC took virtual was their annual 36for75 initiative that allows 36 entrepreneurs free access to the coworking space for 75 days. Gaurang Bham, a recent Drexel graduate and founder and CEO of Phoodie—a smart food delivery app startup —was a member of the 2020 class.

Before the pandemic, Bham enjoyed having a centralized location for his team. “If a developer has to understand system architecture ideas, it helps to be in the same room with a whiteboard,” he said. “You can only do so much over Zoom.”

Bham recalls that one contact he made at a coworking space helped him set up connections with several local restaurants and food trucks, simply “out of the goodness of his heart.” Bham has maintained his existing social network since workplaces were driven online. But, Bham adds, he’s had trouble increasing his network since the pandemic. “When things are over a call, there’s not as much motivation to reach out and meet people because it’s a more formal format,” he said.

Regular access to resources like these in-person communities, or even to reliable internet and office space, can bring a budding engineer closer to a breakthrough, argues Fox Business School Professor Alan Kerzner. “A very good way to be financially independent is to start your own business,” he said. “It sure doesn’t guarantee financial success, but if you find it, you’re basically controlling your own destiny.”

Making sure these pathways are open to a diverse range of entrepreneurs can be an important step toward bridging the wealth gap. A 2018 research paper from the economic inclusion nonprofit Interise reported that the “wealth associated with white Americans is ten times higher than those of Hispanic/Latino- and African-Americans,” but the gap between white and African-American business owners “decreases to a factor of three.”

Progress is hindered, however, if communal working groups are limited to online. ”If you don’t have regular connectivity, it can be a real issue,” Kerzner said. Even a highly productive work-from-home environment can only take new entrepreneurs so far. ““I still believe doing that face-to-face is much more effective.”

Entrepreneurs like MMURE founder O’Neill hope to return to pre-pandemic collaboration. “I 100% can’t wait to get back to a coworking space,” she said. “There’s an energy about being around all of these people that feel like your co-workers, and I can’t wait to be a part of it again.”