The newest business hotspot in Irving, TX, isn’t located in Las Colinas but right outside of old downtown, just past a transmission shop-turned-fountain and next to City Hall on Irving Boulevard.
The Study opened its doors in August 2017 as the first small business and entrepreneur center in the 13th most populous city in Texas. At its helm is Tom Foley, a New York native with a gregarious attitude that has won him trust among the members of The Study and the city’s leadership and business community. In a wide-ranging conversation, Tom spoke to Launch DFW about how a northerner lawyer ended up in Texas supporting local businesses, and what we can expect in 2018.
The sun was shining through the windows of The Study, which has an almost 360-degree view of south Irving, as Tom spoke. We were tucked away in the corner of the 25,000-square-foot space as members worked or chatted quietly.
The first question gets right to the point: How did the vision come together for The Study?
Tom begins: I wound up teaching high school between college and law school in inner-city Queens in New York and realized I was a spoiled brat. I saw that education is the key, and I was provided access to education that I took for granted. It stuck in my mind, so I wanted to improve the educational opportunities with the concept of “employcation,” where education and employment collide. The idea was to pull the college campuses off of campus.
I was working on that when this opportunity was presented by [former] Mayor Van Duyne. They said we’re looking at creating an entrepreneur center. When we reviewed it, we agreed that this location has its challenges and the economic development of an entrepreneur center has yet to be concretely proven. So you bring the idea my interest of bringing education to the yet-to-be-identified students plus the opportunity to help entrepreneurs. I said can we create a facility that is just by its location a destination location and we will provide education and access as our driving goal.
The Study’s purpose
What we like to say “What’s your question. How can we help you?” If you enter the library, you go to the librarian and say I would like to do some research on astronomy. The librarian will tell you what section of the Dewey Decimal area you would go to and you would do your research. So we at The Study wanted to aggregate resources and then point you in that direction. So if you come in and you say “I dropped out of high school, I view myself as underemployed and I’d like an opportunity to grow,” we would work with that person through our partnership with North Lake College and workforce development. Pair that with the same question the corporation would ask “We’d like to improve our workforce and we can’t identify workers in a particular area.” If we have those symbiotic questions, it becomes a natural conduit or bridge or introducer or facilitator or broker; we’re removing the friction in that process. We’re providing education and access to the corporate consumer and the individual consumer: the individual consumer looking to grow and the corporate consumer looking to enhance their workforce.
Who does The Study serve?
We have a focus on women-owned business and women-led business, followed by veterans and minorities. But on our initial prioritization, it’s women-owned and women-led business from a policy perspective. How can we help the organizations? It’s not only the entrepreneurs’ assistance. We will help you from a legal and accounting perspective, we will put the mentor in place. We want to help facilitate women’s small businesses doing business with women’s small businesses. And if we can create that opportunity, it’s going to help those women-owned businesses grow. At the same point in time, if we partner with Women’s Business Council Southwest and the WBENC certification process, we can expose the women’s small businesses to the opportunities of being women certified and an introduction to larger corporations.
You are aligned with other organizations that help small businesses; how do you keep from overlapping?
We are not competitive to the [Irving] Chamber [of Commerce] and WBENC. [We want to] be additive and complementary. If we create those assets, we’re creating economic development. We will attract the entrepreneurs by definition because the entrepreneurs are going to come to where the business is. The curriculum that underlies it is not magic. The curriculum offered at any entrepreneur center is not magic. The networking systems created are not magic. Ultimately it’s the business activity that’s going to attract it. So the thought was if you drive with education and access and we grow, the rest will follow.
In the meeting I just had, one of the critiques that we heard is a fragmented market within the entrepreneurial community. We want to be accessible and available to any organization. If Launchpad City wants to open up an office here, if the DEC [Dallas Entrepreneur Center] wants to open an office here, if Capital Factory wants to open an office here, the answer is yes. It’s not a matter of us trying to create a brand that’s looking to target those same opportunities. The second aspect is…the community business component. It’s not just about the start-up businesses, it’s about raising the entire community and that’s where we think [it] will be successful. If we can create a model that repurposes under-utilized municipal assets to convert it to an economic development where the entire community benefits, funded by the private sector, you have a model that is going to be one that is sought for replication. I can tell you that we’re not interested in being the one that replicates it. We don’t want to lift this and put it in St Louis but we do want to hopefully create a model that partners with private sector and the public sector in an effective way without tapping into the municipal budget.
Who are you seeking to work with going forward?
We are uniquely positioned…we turn our weaknesses into strengths. The location is not where you would pinpoint and drop and entrepreneur center: the median income in the surrounding 3-mile radius is in the 40s and by definition those are not the families or individuals that are going to launch a business because they can’t afford to launch a business. They need their compensation on a regular basis. So we have a unique challenge in spurring economic development. You have an area that could be the Main Street to go to in north Texas. It’s not there yet. The city is committed to fostering that.
The fountain that’s across the street was a transmission shop at one point. The city invested and converted it into a fountain. Clearly that’s an investment in the growth of the area because there’s no revenue or tax dollars being generated from a fountain. So there’s a longer term plan associated with that. The city is interested in and investing and this is one of those opportunities to promote it.
Because of the unique position, because it’s a public-private partnership with the City of Irving, we have reach that perhaps atypical compared to similar organizations. We’re not in the budget or municipality, we’re not funded annually by the city. We met with Herb Austin, who is the district director of the SBA, Dallas/Fort Worth. He’s toured the facility and wants to support it in any way that we ask, which means hosting programs bringing in SBA experts, bringing in the SCORE network. We’ve been very lucky in being able to pull all those resources together in a pretty short period of time so that we can at least competitively to any similar facility say the offerings or access to mentorship, information and growth opportunities is the same.
You started off discussing “employcation” and your work with college students. How do you plan to bring those concepts to The Study?
We are partners in education with Irving ISD. Irving ISD has a mandatory 18-week curriculum for entrepreneurship fourth and fifth graders…we are helping with that. We sit as the chair of the school of entrepreneurship for the board of the City of Irving ISD. What we want to do is create exposure, and create the opportunity for students to understand what entrepreneurship and small business growth is and what opportunities they have. That ranges from being your own operator to understanding what positions are out there. So we partner with the ISD, Northlake, and UNT in one scenario to offer a 3 + 2 Master’s program with an early start possibility with the ISD. That shows the students in high school what their opportunities are from both the employability perspective and a small business perspective. When you jump to college, it’s a more broad answer. I’m an adjunct at Paul Quinn College and one of our areas a focus is turning the curriculum upside down. And part of my goal…is to create the real world atmosphere for the students. So what I teach in those classes, I teasingly but in reality say, I’ve yet to be at a conference where I’m told to clear the conference room table because we have a pop quiz. I have yet to go to a conference that’s business-oriented where we sit in rows. I’ve yet to be lectured to in conferences or meetings; they’re organically developed. We want to bring some of that to the college student…to give those college students an opportunity to experience that sooner rather than later.
How the City of Irving Helps
The city recognizes that in order to successfully attract and retain business, a talented workforce is necessary. So they certainly see the value in creating corporate-driven workforce programs and how we can help develop and find those programs. The city recently joined Bloomberg’s initiative [What Works Cities] that’s talking about a smart city program and leveraging the technology that’s developing to ensure it rolls into the municipal program. They are is the forward-looking plan and we are looked to as an added resource or compliment to what they’re working on. And then the city will help with our Outreach so they’ll help promote what we’re working on and no help provide resources so if we want to conduct a seminar on doing business with City they’ll say yes. If we want to conduct a seminar on the economic development plans for South Irving for him a real estate development perspective Say yes. So they’re supportive and understanding that again under the theory of community business thing, every partner from the corporate Community to the academic Community to the broad community to the municipalities need to support that. And we’ve been pleased to have the city support. Mayor Van Dyne was instrumental in launching the facility along with City Council and Mayor Stopfer has been very supportive going forward with all of the programs.
As an organization we also have a focus on social impact…we also believe that you should follow your passion followed by your principle, you’ll find your purpose and profit will follow…the idea in launching a business is you’re looking to ensure a social impact…,something that is passionate to you.
You should follow your passion followed by your principle, you’ll find your purpose and profit will follow.
Some of the current members Launch DFW spoke with offered their perspectives on the community within The Study and how Tom’s vision persuaded them to see a future at the coworking space.
Lynne Braggs of Braggology marketing and business consulting has been a member since the facility opened in summer 2017. After relocating back to Dallas from Washington, D.C., Lynne connected with the Irving Chamber of Commerce upon the recommendation of an associate who said the Chamber was an ideal place for a small business to hitch their wagon. From there, she connected with Tom and they “hit it off.”
“I saw the vision; I was able to grab hold of what he wanted to accomplish here and it meshed really well with how I see things,” Lynne said. Lynne calls herself an entrepreneur at heart after working with bigger corporations, and she saw The Study as a blank canvas upon which Irving small business owners could write their vision. Tom’s focus on women-owned business was also a plus for Lynne.
“We all seem to be on the same page and…have the same mindset,” Lynne explained. “It just makes for a very friendly open very creative type of environment.”
Fellow member Garland Ervin, president of production company Nomadic Communications, supports Tom’s leadership, having been helped by him even before joining The Study.
“He is part mentor, part guide, and part friend,” Garland said of the exec. “He offers you a lot of things. And he delivers.”
As The Study continues to grow, it is members like Lynne and Garland whose engagement will create business opportunities throughout Irving and the region, just as Tom pictured.
“I’ve seen something dynamic happening here,” Garland said. “I see people that are that see possibilities when one time they didn’t. The seeds are being planted here.”