Back when Uber was a fledgling start-up, it took shape in places like Denver’s Galvanize, a modern-day campus where learning and working come together. Here’s the secret to the company’s success — and a sneak peek at what they’re planning next.
In 2012, Jim Deters, co-founder and CEO of Galvanize, opened his first learning community for technology in Denver’s Golden Triangle neighborhood. Since then, the neighborhood has exploded as a hotbed of start-ups — with no signs of slowing down. So has the Galvanize concept, which has spread to eight cities, including San Francisco, Seattle, Austin and in early 2017, New York City and Phoenix.
ACCESS: How did the idea of Galvanize first come to you?
JIM DETERS: I call it an urban entrepreneurial renaissance that was taking shape, and I recognized this trend starting in 2010. It was the confluence of three things that were happening. The first was a demographic shift — and that was that the largest population ever on earth, millennials, came of employment age. And at the same time millennials were graduating school, the Great Recession happened. And at the same time that happened, we once and for all really had complete tech ubiquity. That means two things. Yes, we all have very, very fast computer power in our pockets, but more important, we have the access to computing power. Basically anybody sitting in a coffee shop around the corner from me right now or sitting in the Galvanize community working on their laptops has access to the same computing power and the same level of technology as the Fortune 500 companies in the world. The playing field is now level. The playing field that’s been un-level is what skills you have and who you know. So the thesis around Galvanize was how to become an engine to empower more entrepreneurs and engineers.
ACCESS: Does Galvanize do that by bringing entrepreneurs and engineers in a co-working space?
J.D.: Rather than think of it as a co-working space, think of it more as a membership learning club or what we call a “membership learning community.” So I like to say if you want to be a fit person, you can’t go to the gym three times a year, you have to go every single week. And in the world we live in today, we’re the club you go to all the time to level up, to acquire new skills, to keep pace with the change of technology, to build your network, to meet other people. We’ve basically built the 21st-century learning club or learning community for engineers and entrepreneurs.
ACCESS: So, do most of your members work in the tech space?
J.D.: Galvanize is a technology-centered company and membership club and community, but I’d also say, who’s not in the technology business anymore. And that’s one of the big trends we work on and capitalize on today. So our members range from workers at IBM and Google to first-time entrepreneurs just getting started with an idea. It’s this melting pot of students and aspiring engineers and small companies. But we also have some of the biggest companies in the world, because the biggest companies in the world need two things: They need innovation and they need talent. We’re providing both things, so basically they’re tapping into our innovation community so they can see how people work today, what start-ups are being built in their sector and how they can recruit from some of the most cutting-edge programs happening on one campus. So think of this beautiful melting pot where you can’t tell who’s the venture capitalist, who’s the first-time entrepreneur, who’s the executive from a major company and who’s a data science or web development student. They’re all inside of one ginormous campus.
ACCESS: And one pretty unconventional campus, right?
J.D.: It’s what a school should look like today. School should be this messy intersection of industry collaboration with people learning and working on new products and technologies, not some separated system that we’ve built today where you go away and learn for four years and then you’re expected to go and figure it out on your own the rest of the time. Learning needs to be a continuous process where you have access to learn and grow over and over and over again. That’s literally the idea behind our community that we’ve built.
ACCESS: Describe what the community looks like.
J.D.: These are not small campuses. The Golden Triangle campus, our first, is one of the smallest. It’s 30,000 square feet, and when you walk into our café and bar, those are run by us. So when you walk into a Galvanize, we control the entire experience. From the barista who pulls your shot of espresso and greets you warmly, to the faculty who teaches you to code, to every member and every industry partner on that campus, that was all carefully curated as a learning community by us. We do it in Denver, Boulder and Seattle. We do it in South of Market in San Francisco, in Austin and in SoHo in Manhattan. And now we’re doing it in downtown Phoenix — again playing to this urban thesis. These are 30,000- to 75,000-square-foot, modern, urban innovation centers where we control the entire vertically integrated experience.
ACCESS: Taking a closer look at the Golden Triangle, how has the idea behind the Galvanize community extended beyond the campus walls?
J.D.: Well, looking at the 15-story tower that I’m in the shadow of right now, and another 15-story tower being built there and the other 15-story tower being built there, you’re seeing it in the Golden Triangle neighborhood and, really, all of Denver. Denver is one of the big epicenters of this millennial population increase. We built the creative class I described, this urban entrepreneurial culture, this community that’s coming to the urban core. And the Golden Triangle is one of those beautiful neighborhoods in Denver, as well as Lower Downtown, among others. Denver is one of the fastest-growing communities of any city in the country. Denver and Austin are No. 1 each month in terms of how many millennials move to the community, and that’s a testament to the culture we’ve built here — the infrastructure — that people want to work and live and grow in a fun, creative, urban infrastructure. So you’ve got cool clubs, cool bars, cool people to meet with and cool access to technology, not to mention a way to get skills and get great-paying jobs. I mean, Denver is a super-world-class city in that regard, and the Golden Triangle neighborhood is exploding.
ACCESS: What’s an example of a start-up that’s seen big success coming out of the neighborhood?
J.D.: If you look at a lot of the great growth companies, almost all of them or their entrepreneurs really got their start and origins when we opened in October 2012. For example, we were one of the first to launch Uber out of our campus. When the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, launched Uber, Denver was the seventh market, so we were there in its very early days. We did four different rallies with Kalanick himself to help promote and launch Uber in the city of Denver and help propel it to the behemoth it’s become. Another example is an awesome woman named Jenna Walker, who, along with her sister, built an amazing company called Artifact Uprising [one of the big players in photo books, prints and gifts for digital photos]. A lot of companies have now spread their wings and have their own office space in Denver. But a lot of their origins were at Galvanize, and we’re happy to be part of their journey. Certainly I’m not taking any credit for their success. We just want to build a medium by which to grow great companies. They did the work. We just helped to build the context.
ACCESS: Elaborate on what the context looks like.
J.D.: I always use this word “context” or “medium,” by which I mean how someone would be more likely to be successful or grow. We have constant a la carte programming where you can get the skills you need as you’re growing your business. And then we have access to mentors, to capturing the lore of those who have come before. So some of the great CEOs and entrepreneurs and venture capitalists of the region hold office hours here; they do mentorships here. With all of that inside of one ecosystem, you build serendipity and connections, and you’re more likely to be successful. It’s so much more powerful than if you’re just sitting all alone at some random Starbucks on the corner.
ACCESS: So that’s been the formula for your success?
J.D.: I really think so. One of our core values is what we call “learn and grow courageously,” which is obviously what we represent to our members and our students. We believe that those who are willing to do the work, those who have the aptitude, the drive and the determination should have an opportunity. So one of our core goals is to build pathways for people to be successful today. You don’t have to be born in a cushy ZIP code or have to have some fancy credentials from a fancy school. And if you look at our base of people, particularly our students, they come from all walks of life, all levels of diversity and all different backgrounds of situations. We’re taking folks who worked as clerks at frozen yogurt stands and at Best Buy and turning them into cutting-edge software engineers making six-figure salaries. That’s super-meaningful work, helping be part of people’s transformations and that type of culture. When you look at the number of entrepreneurs we inspire and the companies they build and the people they employ, we’ve got a couple thousand now in various companies. And then you look at the impact that has on their families and their children. It’s the modern path to upward mobility — to be an entrepreneur or to have massive tech literacy.
ACCESS: So this is truly filling a void in training the next generation of workers?
J.D.: There’s a huge demand for people wanting alternative pathways to build skills, as well as a huge demand of people who want to become entrepreneurs or engineers. People have generally fallen into one of three categories. They might end up unemployed. Or, more than likely, they’re underemployed, meaning they have some level of post-secondary education but they’re driving an Uber or working at Starbucks. And the third is a category I call the “unhappily employed.” They played by the system that everybody told them to play by and they’re sitting in a cubicle unhappy with their lives. They want a career switch because they want a better trajectory of progress in their career, and they’re looking for new pathways to acquire skills and acquire access. That’s exactly what we’re doing. And to literally have the industry on campus is unique. All of our students have to work on an industry project to graduate our program, and they get to work with the big industry partners, which becomes a job interview. You have immediate access to all of these employers, and that’s ultimately what these folks are looking for.
ACCESS: What does the demand for these workers look like?
J.D.: We’re seeing this massive global talent arms race taking shape. Some of the smartest companies in the world are already making moves. That’s going to partly be hiring new skilled people like Galvanize students. But it’s also going to be the next move: How do you reskill and modernize your existing people. That’s one of the things that Galvanize is doing at a very large scale. We’re working with some of our largest companies in the world — these are Fortune 50s and Fortune 100s — that have hired our students and said, “We love what you built, but we have thousands of existing engineers over here. Give them the same skillsets your students have.” So now we’re retraining more and more of these students. You can buy all the spark you want. But guess what? If you don’t have the talent to build and innovate, to open up new markets and build new products, you will be out of business in 10 years. It’s that simple. That’s how fast the world is moving.
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