Written by Amanda Maher
Ohio native Reese Neader had traveled the world, from Washington D.C. to Egypt’s Tahrir Square. However, he eventually made his way back and settled in Columbus, a city he felt was loaded with potential but needed a spark to drastically shake things up. So in May 2013 Neader founded Forge Columbus, a social and civic innovation hub for local entrepreneurs.
But unlike other innovation hubs, Forge Columbus is centered more on its programmatic activities than on its physical space. In fact, Forge Columbus has been dubbed “the civic innovation program of the city of Columbus” – with no mention of physical location at all. It’s not solely a business incubator or coworking space (though, those are also components), rather instead, Forge Columbus broadly leverages civic innovation as a catalyst to strengthen Columbus into a vibrant, competitive 21st century city.
The grassroots effort harnesses the potential of local entrepreneurs and civic leaders who are dedicated to giving back and improving Columbus’s inner city. “We’re trying to aggregate as much citizen potential as possible,” explains Neader. Each year, Forge Columbus provides volunteer support for select projects that improve the city’s developing neighborhoods. So far, those projects have included:
In keeping with the theme of civic innovation, the space was designed to attract and promote comingling of businesses, nonprofits and government officials alike. To achieve that goal, Forgeworks initially required every member to donate a certain number of hours per month towards participating in Forge projects or helping another member with a project. Forge Columbus was originally slated to manage the coworking space, but eventually made the decision to step down as operator. The “Forgeworks” name has since been scrapped in favor of 400 West Rich, although Neader still maintains an office at the space for Forge Columbus, and is actively engaged in providing “skill share” and networking opportunities for member companies.
Forge Columbus also spearheaded the effort to have Columbus designated as a “Kiva City,” which brings together a broader base of community groups, financial institutions and Kiva Trustees (like Forge Columbus) to create meaningful connections between local and global investors and Columbus-area entrepreneurs. In July 2016, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther and Kiva officially announced Kiva Columbus. “This initiative is a virtuous circle of opportunity for Columbus where the return on investment is measured more by character than credit scores,” said Mayor Ginther. “We’re giving residents a critical way to directly support the small businesses that are the backbone and creative engine of our local economy, and in turn Columbus entrepreneurs get access to the capital that they need to grow.”
At first glance, these efforts might seem disconnected. After all, what do micro-loans have to do with transportation planning? But at the end of the day, the projects undertaken by the Forge Columbus network are in full alignment with the organization’s three overarching themes: a commitment to Buying Local (to create jobs), Giving Back (to improve local neighborhoods) and Investing Locally (to put unemployed residents back to work).
There’s no doubt that Forge Columbus’s early efforts are already making tremendous strides to those ends.