Cool Coworking Space Spotlight

Gig East builds community and entrepreneurs in North Carolina

Wilson is known for things with “gig” in them: the Whirligig Festival, Vollis Simpson’s Whirigig, the Whirligig park, gigabit internet from Greenlight, and the growing gig economy. 

That also includes Gig East Exchange, a hub for remote workers, entrepreneurs, freelancers and side hustlers. I got to speak with  Community Exchange Coordinator Ashley Harris and Greenlight Marketing & Sales Coordinator Emily Wells about how they cultivate connectivity through coworking.

“It comes naturally when you care.” 

Ashey Harris Gig EastFor Ashley Harris, community building starts with caring relationships. “We created a culture where people feel welcome. Noticing when someone’s been gone a week and checking in — that personal touch has driven our community.” From knowing kids’ names to hosting monthly waffle breakfasts, the focus is on fellowship. 

“People enjoy walking in that door. We can ask about their kids, we know them by name — their kids come and hang out!” says Harris. It’s the human connections that anchor their community and set the stage for business growth.

“You — yes you — are an entrepreneur!”  

Many members don’t initially see themselves as business owners, according to Wells and Harris. “We have people doing things as a hobby or interest, thinking about pursuing it full-time. We tell them yes you are, that does make you an entrepreneur!” 

By breaking down barriers of insecurity, they foster a spirit of empowerment. “It’s really cool to see them have that realization that they belong here and can call themselves an entrepreneur. They don't have to have that level of insecurity,” Harris explains.

“Partner with local people.”

Emily Wells Gig East65% of current programming comes from partnerships like Wilson Community Improvement Association. “We went into neighborhoods that could benefit from resources here,” says Harris. Now digital literacy and Greenlight ed classes meet local needs. 

Collaboration also fuels events. “We try not to conflict with the Chamber of Commerce or other happenings,” Wells notes. The goal is for most content to stem from teamwork with area organizations. Diverse partners strengthen the community.

Cultivating an ecosystem beyond walls


“Often new people come in with groups they know, then realize what they do and have a business themselves,” Wells observes. Some offer guidance and financing resources. Others have programs open to the public for broader impact. “It makes the community more diverse,” she says.

They also sometimes hold events offsite. “Educational events out of the building allow us to facilitate classes for more people,” according to Wells. Whether downtown or in the neighborhoods, the Exchange strives to nurture an ecosystem spanning Wilson.

“Stronger metrics to map the member journey.”  

From 8-5 remote workers to 24/7 access to private offices, Wells outlines membership levels that let businesses scale up. Now they want to quantify that journey. “We’re watching how people move through categories as they grow,” says Wells. 

Key metrics will capture event participation, educational program completion, and other engagement. “We want concrete information on the steps they're taking,” Wells explains. Data will reveal how members use offerings enroute to growth.

The past paves the future of work

The seeds for the Exchange were planted back in 2015-2016 during early economic development conversations, according to Wells. “That became a series of events called Gig East. The first Gig East Summit was 2016 — we still do that annually,” she explains.

Demand quickly outgrew the pop-ups. Wells recalls, “The Exchange was born as a dedicated coworking space so entrepreneurs didn't have to leave Wilson.” Now the RiOT Accelerator Program helps cohorts grow each spring,  and facilitates a variety of entrepreneurial processes – from research commercialization to startup growth to corporate innovation projects. There is an opportunity for industry to seed the accelerator with market-driven problems. 

A central tenet? “Community building isn’t necessarily easy but it comes naturally when you care about what you do,” Harris believes. From member journeys to city partnerships, that personal passion promises to be the heartbeat of the Gig East Exchange for years ahead.

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