In Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts district, a long wooden table sits at the center of a room lined with curtained, individualized workspaces, home to dozens of tiny startups. Shaul Jolles (B.B.A. ’99, MBA ’01) places a hand gently on the tabletop. “The discussions that led to bringing Google Fiber to Kansas City started at this table,” he says.
Jolles uses the word “organic” to describe his business—and his passion. He doesn’t grow vegetables, though. He grows companies. Born and raised in Israel, educated at UMKC and briefly a resident of New York City, Jolles is in many ways a product of—and a significant source of leadership and creative energy within—the Crossroads Arts District of Kansas City.
It was the creative ferment and energy of the Crossroads that kept him in Kansas City after he decided to stop here for “just a semester” at the urging of family friends. That’s also what lured him back after he went off to New York to work after completing an undergraduate degree in finance and a graduate degree in international business at UMKC in 2001.
Jolles came to Kansas City for the first time at age 16, as a guest of Scott and Susan Krigel, a Kansas City family that did business with his father. They invited him to return after his mandatory stint in the Israeli army. He enrolled in school, intending to stay for a semester. Instead, he fell in love with Kansas City, and in particular, the Crossroads community.
Attending school in the city played a fundamental role in that process. “It’s not a college town where you see people for four years and then probably never see most of them ever again,” Jolles says. “You sit in class with people you know you’re going to see again, long after you finish school. Kansas City becomes more than just a place to go to school and to football games.”
Jolles sounds like a walking billboard for the idea of making Kansas City “America’s Most Entrepreneurial City,” a Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce Big 5 goal that Jolles says is achievable—as long as the focus remains on activity rather than promotion. “You don’t do it by having a slogan,” he says. “You do it by creating the conditions that let it happen organically.” And that’s what he does as the founder/owner/operator of OfficePort, Kansas City’s first “coworking” space, in the Crossroads.
That project, the unparalleled conditions it creates and the impact it has had on the city’s long-term goals, has created a reputation for Jolles among champions of Kansas City’s entrepreneurial goals. In fact, Jolles’ central role in winning the Google sweepstakes for the two Kansas Cities was the reason he earned the Downtown Council’s 2011 Urban Hero award. Jolles says at one time there were about 100 people collaborating on the Google fiber application. “Like Google, Shaul is a game-changer for downtown,” Council spokesman Mike Hurd told Silicon Prairie News.
OfficePort is a coworking space, which Jolles describes as a think tank and a playground for entrepreneurs. People can rent a small workspace for as little as $250 a month, which includes utilities, conference room use, internet connections—and the potential for elbow-rubbing with numerous other creative entrepreneurs.
It’s not an incubator or an accelerator, which are top-down concepts. OfficePort does not provide guidance, expertise or funding; it’s a petri dish of growth culture that allows business ideas, and businesses, to grow and evolve organically. Jolles says that’s what sets OfficePort apart as more than just cheap space. “It’s a fertile environment for collaboration,” he says. Companies come in to OfficePort and then evolve and combine.
There are six companies now that are essentially partnerships of individual OfficePort members. “The design of the space and the depth of talent invites people to work together naturally,” Jolles says. “We have lawyers, we have accountants, we have tech people, we have insurance agents.” OfficePort members are encouraged to use each other as vendors. Jolles also seeks to provide ongoing stimulation for his members’ creativity. He sponsors frequent forums or “unconventions” in the space, with loose, open agendas designed to allow the conversation to develop—there’s that word again—“organically.”
Peter Witte, dean of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, was a featured speaker at one of the forums, tied to the Middle of the Map music festival. Witte is an academic and a musician, not a businessman, yet he was a perfect choice for an OfficePort forum, Jolles says. “We wanted Peter here to inspire us.”
Jolles has added OfficePorts in the River Market and in Chicago’s Loop, but it is the Crossroads-based original that remains his life’s passion. “OfficePort in Chicago operates in a similar way, but it’s not as community-driven as this one is,” he says. “Here, the community has a sense of ownership of the place, they have a stake here. We are a community within a community, the Crossroads, within a community, Kansas City.”