It takes a special kind of bravery to start your own company. The endeavor comes with a never ending stream of challenges, complications, and proverbial hills to climb. To overcome these obstacles, it’s helpful to have a strong support system—a community you can lean on when the going gets tough. The Speak Easy coworking space aims to provide such a community to entrepreneurs, creators, and remote workers. 

Since opening its doors in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood in 2012, The Speak Easy has been home to hundreds of people starting their own businesses as well as those seeking a different kind of work space. “The Speak Easy has grown into this mission of taking away barriers to entrepreneurship,” said Chief Community Officer Jessica Ernsberger.

Jessica Ernsberger, Chief Community Officer
Jessica Ernsberger
Chief Community Officer
“The secret sauce here is that this is a mosaic of people doing different things who care about each other, and they’re not afraid to ask for help. What we have to give is the know-how through the know-who.”

Sharing a physical workspace with those who care about and support you became a challenge in and of itself in March 2020 when we entered the pandemic’s  “unprecedented times” and the overwhelming majority of workers went remote. “[The Speak Easy] has been an absolute lifeline for anyone who decided to stick with it,” Jessica explained. “This was the only place a lot of us came outside of our homes or grocery stores. The bonds that grew here from all of us being in this COVID boat together, having others to be around, it was a lot less depressing.”

As the pandemic drags on, The Speak Easy remains a home to entrepreneurs building businesses in all kinds of industries, including the growing Indiana tech ecosystem. We talked with four of these rising entrepreneurs about what they’re building, and why they chose the Speak Easy community to launch their businesses.

Coworking space showcases customers’ challenges

LaToya Johnson, founder and CEO, AwayZones Inc.

In the middle part of the 20th century, postal worker and travel writer Hugo Victor Green wrote “The Green Book,” a  periodical that helped African-American travelers navigate between Jim Crow laws and segregation to find businesses they could safely patronize. Now, decades later, LaToya Johnson’s “Victor” app aims to do much of the same, but takes the concept to other groups and peoples with AwayZones Inc. 

“Victor is a multicultural platform with a mission to provide an opportunity for under-represented and underserved business owners and consumers to interact with each other in order to facilitate the exchange of products, goods or services in an equitable economic system,” LaToya explained. 

LaToya is launching from The Speak Easy because the coworking space gives her the flexibility to directly and immediately see the challenges faced by the business owners she works with and to incorporate a problem solving solution into the Victor platform.

LaToya Johnson, Founder and CEO of AwayZones, Inc.
LaToya Johnson
Founder and CEO, AwayZones Inc.
“Launching out a coworking space like the Speak Easy allows me to work with these business owners daily. I see, directly and immediately, the challenges these owners face and I get to incorporate a problem solving solution into the Victor platform.”

LaToya finds that working out of a coworking space like The Speak Easy helps provide creative enhancement, and a broad scope of thinking and processing problems and solutions in her work. “I can’t say we were negatively impacted by the pandemic necessarily, but we did feel the pain of what it did to the people we’re trying to support.” She hopes that Victor can help minority-owned businesses that have been hurt by the loss of foot traffic during the pandemic by introducing an e-commerce lite version that could take the place of some in-person sales, she said.

Robert Wheeler, CTO of AwayZones Inc., operates remotely from his home Connecticut, but is excited to see the places the Victor app will go. 

“I really believe in what [LaToya’s] doing here, and I can’t believe there isn’t a product like this out there yet,” Robert explained. “You can Google something, but you’re not going to necessarily know if it’s minority owned, BIPOC owned. This is such a great equality app, especially for specific geographic locations. That’s the reason I joined, I saw all kinds of possibilities, especially after we built the app. The proof is in the pudding, with everyone who’s seen it so far loving it.”

The Victor app launches in November 2021.

Coworking space offers collaboration

Bo Turner, co-founder and marketing director of BoCo Marketing Collective

The changes the world has undergone since March 2020 has led to a reimagining of the ways and places in which we work. It has also prompted many professionals to reevaluate the paths they’ve taken, and to change course. Such has been the journey of Bo Turner, co-founder and marketing director of BoCo Collective Marketing.

“Not many jobs were fully remote before COVID, and when the pandemic came around and we were remote I loved that freedom,” said Bo, who is an avid traveler. “So when they asked us to come back to the office full-time, I wasn’t on board with it.” And so Bo and her co-founder, Courtney Cook, started a brand new company. 

Her passion for travel makes a coworking space like The Speak Easy a flexible and versatile base of operations. “I had been working out of my house for a while and this past spring I found myself being depressed, not wanting to do any work, and considering quitting my job,” said Bo. “My co-founder was so supportive, and she helped me realize that I thrived when I was out in the community and talking to people. She encouraged me to find a coworking space. I had another friend who had already been working out of The Speak Easy so that’s how I found it.”

Bo Turner, co-founder and marketing director of BoCo Marketing Collective
Bo Turner
Co-founder and Marketing Director of BoCo Marketing Collective
“[The Speak Easy] is so collaborative, supportive, and friendly. It makes me so happy and excited to know I chose to work out of there.”

Bo loves the social aspect The Speak Easy provides, saying it gives her the chance to meet people in different industries, people who challenge her thoughts and open her eyes to new opportunities. 

BoCo Collective Marketing works with small businesses and new entrepreneurs, and Bo talked about the company goal of encouraging more women and minorities to launch their own businesses. “I was adopted from China, which makes me appreciate the circumstances and privilege that I have to encourage other women and minorities to pursue their dreams,” Bo explained.

Coworking space brings entrepreneurs together

TJ Wright, principal & CEO of Whelhaus & Co.

The journey to the tech world is varied and unique for each and every person who goes down that path. For TJ Wright, principal & CEO of Whelhaus & Co., that journey started through his previous work in education as well as through a changing worldview many have adopted in light of all that’s happened since early 2020.

“We formally started in 2019,” TJ explained, “right before COVID came around.”

TJ Wright, principal & CEO of Whelhaus & Co.
TJ Wright
Principal & CEO of Whelhaus & Co.
“I think, like many people, the pandemic pushed a lot of us to a place of unrelenting awareness. I couldn’t ignore what I was seeing anymore.”

Whelhaus & Co. is a social enterprise focused on consulting with areas of expertise in DE&I, talent optimization, social impact and responsibility, and capacity building. “Your people are your largest asset, so treat them as such,” TJ said. “We bring the ‘touchy-feely’ and the business aspects together to put employees at the center of the work, and we do it in a way that doesn’t call anyone out but puts people in a space of awareness. We create brave spaces rather than safe spaces.”

Like many entrepreneurs, TJ started his company while still maintaining a separate full-time job and building up his new enterprise in his spare time. In his last role as a business manager before going into Whelhaus full-time, he saw all that went into the successful operation of an organization as well as the attitudes that could hold a team back from success. “I started to hear too often [from my team], ‘oh, that’s not in our wheelhouse.’ Around then was when LaToya Johnson told me that I needed to come over to The Speak Easy.”

Whelhaus & Co. is named in part due to TJ’s frustration of hearing that excuse—“it’s not in our wheelhouse.” The other aspect of it is in honor to adversities faced through the history of the Black queer community. “A ‘haus’ is a tribe or group in Black queer culture,” TJ said. “In the 1950’s and 1960’s ballroom culture was created and you had ‘hauses’ you belonged to like fraternities and sororities. The hauses created a sense of community that people desperately needed.”

His introduction to The Speak Easy community opened TJ’s eyes to the possibilities of entrepreneurship, and that it wasn’t a pipedream. The power of a community like The Speak Easy is, TJ explained, that “only entrepreneurs understand what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. You’re going to go through ebbs and flows that are taxing but also rewarding. The only way to get through that is to have a strong group of entrepreneurs who believe in you and want to support you for the sake of believing in you. It makes or breaks a company.” 

Coworking space sparks entrepreneurial ideas

Quinton Pedrick, Photographer, Event Staff & Consultant for The Speak Easy

Quinton Pedrick is precisely the kind of person The Speak Easy exists for—the aspiring entrepreneur with big dreams, a great deal of passion, and an empathetic heart. Born and raised around Munster, Ind., Quinton had not spent much time in Indianapolis until April 2021, and in his short time in the Circle City he has already started to put down roots.

Quenton Pedrick, Photographer, Event Staff & Consultant for the Speak Easy
Quinton Pedrick
Photographer, Event Staff & Consultant for the Speak Easy
“The Speak Easy has been an integral part in helping me act on my big dreams but also fostering the connections that make it all possible.”

In addition to helping him feel welcomed and encouraged in Indianapolis, the coworking space opened Quinton’s eyes to different ways companies can function for the common good. This included learning about certified b corporations (aka b-corps) from former Executive Director of The Speak Easy, Julie Heath, who now serves as VP of Entrepreneurial Ecosystems for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.

Bcorporation.net describes the entities as “businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.”

The time he has spent at The Speak Easy, and with other leaders and entrepreneurs around Indianapolis, has inspired Quinton to follow his own path of creativity and leadership. This path is currently taking him through courses with Eleven Fifty Academy, and likely back to IUPUI to finish his bachelor’s degree.

While he isn’t quite sure just yet what his first foray into entrepreneurship will be, Quinton feels confident that whatever it is will focus on utilizing a wide variety of technologies to springboard new ideas that will help people through economic development, fundraising, social benefit, and more. With the support and collective mind power of The Speak Easy community on his side, don’t be surprised to see Quinton Pedrick among the ranks of rising entrepreneurs in the growing Indiana tech ecosystem.