By Danielle Wong Moores
Eric Parker doesn’t sit much these days.
But today, he’s relaxing in one of theClubhou.se’s expansive glass-walled rooms on the third floor of the Georgia Cyber Center, overlooking the Savannah River on one side and downtown Augusta on the other. If you’d asked theClubhou.se founder 10 years ago where he would be today, it likely wouldn’t be here.
In 2010, Parker had moved back to his hometown of Augusta for a sabbatical after 12 years of running his firm, Conima, in Silicon Valley, Calif., which had multimillion-dollar clients. An architect by trade, Parker was and is an idea guy. The name of his firm even combines the words “constructed” and “image,” and focuses on helping people realize their identity through constructed images, concepts and hopes for the future.
One day, biking downtown past Sibley Mill, once Augusta’s economic powerhouse, Parker got the idea that Augusta had the building blocks to be a powerhouse again, but not through manufacturing.
His initial thought was to somehow bring together innovation leaders in a collaborative center. Taking a cue from the programming language of one of his clients in Palo Alto, the idea turned into a question: How would you “hack” Augusta?
Gregarious by nature, Parker went into the community looking for people with the same curiosity for innovation so rampant in Silicon Valley. He found it — surprisingly or perhaps not — in a group of local programmers and coders during two hackathons he hosted.
Buoyed by the hackathon success and several initial backers (Parker himself invested $15,000), theClubhou.se opened in December 2012 as a literal clubhouse where people were free to be creative and create great things.
The first building sat on Broad Street between a tattoo parlor and barbershop. As theClubhou.se grew, it moved to the former Academy of Richmond County building on Telfair Street before taking its current role as the innovation partner of the Georgia Cyber Center in 2018. Although the focus has sharpened over the past decade, its mission remains strong: “Step Through, Be Amazing”— an offer to anyone who wants to start a business, grow a company, institute training, set up a virtual or in-person office, or even develop software, electronics or a prototype.
“theClubhou.se has played a key role in supporting entrepreneurs and fostering a culture of innovation in my hometown of Augusta for over a decade now! The resources and sense of community they provide for young people are invaluable, and I’m proud to continue supporting the great work they do.”
— Ben Chestnut, co-founder and CEO of Mailchimp, an early sponsor and supporter of the Sumo Robot League and theClubhou.se
The Power of Connection
“I don’t know how to write a lick of code,” said Grace Belangia, co-founder of theClubhou.se, “but I’m all about community, technology, entrepreneurship, venture capital, angel investing — all the language that you use when you’re trying to build this kind of community.”
A Palo Alto, Calif., transplant, Belangia’s background is in political science and community building. Her interest was piqued after reading Parker’s tweets during the first hackathon. “Literally, one of the tweets was talking about Palo Alto in Augusta,” she said. “I was like, ‘Who does that?’ So we met one afternoon downtown on Broad and I said, ‘I’m in, sign me up.’”
The many supporters who’ve gone all-in on Parker’s initial vision may be the the secret sauce of theClubhou.se culture. Community leaders and innovators like Scott Monnig of Rural Sourcing, Jim Flannery of Four Athens and board member Cobbs Nixon have supported the endeavor through financial commitments, expertise or securing space for the business location.
U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-GA-12, became Parker’s informal mentor when Allen’s title was simply the founder of RW Allen Construction. Native Augustan and founder of MailChimp, Ben Chestnut, was an early and ongoing champion, especially for the Sumo Robot League project.
Chase Lanier, a local artist, is theClubhou.se’s community director and has for years been its reliable and friendly factotum. Original member and software engineer Eric Harrison helped launch Sumo Robot League and Code Boot Camp — he loves theClubhou.se so much its logo is tattooed on his calf. Other numerous volunteers include Belangia and Parker who ran theClubhou.se on a purely volunteer basis for seven of the past 10 years.
Those relationships are points on a timeline that helped theClubhou.se get to where it is today. They led to it being a tour site during initial conversations on whether a Georgia Cyber Center could, in fact, work in Augusta. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant helped theClubhou.se create opportunities for startups in the community health space — and provided resources to expand its network beyond Augusta. Relationships also led to Augusta becoming one of 14 cities — out of 800 — awarded a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation entrepreneurship grant for a program called Startup Life. It became the precursor to Make Startups, a 12-week entrepreneur skills training class.
“Joining theClubhou.se offers entrepreneurs a chance to learn the type of things that other business classes don’t teach: how to pitch your business, how to sustainably fund it, how to pivot when the plan isn’t working. But I think the most lasting impact it made on me were the connections I made while co-working with others who were striving for the same thing — a successful business startup.”
— Jennifer Tinsley, founder of FIELD Botanicals and longtime member
Enlarging the Lens
Community connections in Augusta are not the only building blocks of success for theClubhou.se.
In 2018, Eric Parker testified for the first time before a U.S. congressional committee. Speaking to the House Education and Workforce Committee as part of an Innovation Forum and Showcase, Parker shared the story of theClubhou.se. He tallied how it was achieving credibility as a completely entrepreneur-led initiative and incubator.
At that time, he explained, “A lot of the focus today is on convening people from around the country who are working at a grassroots level, to try to learn from the examples of what they’ve been able to create and also for us as organizations to find partners that we might be able to collaborate with across the country so that we can expand our programs.”
By 2021, theClubhou.se was the first-ever grantee for a quarter-million-dollar Partnership for Inclusive Innovation grant from Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (an initiative to support small businesses). With those monies, theClubhou.se launched the Make Startups network in other Georgia sites and in Colorado.
Now, five other states are poised to come on board within the next two years. Parker is also actively working with Congress to provide language for how to set performance metrics for entrepreneurial training. “We [theClubhou.se] are the national leaders in how the workforce development system can be used to develop entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship skills training,” he said.
In 2019, Belangia, too, was in D.C. meeting with congressional leaders, invited to be a part of the first-ever Entrepreneurship Caucus for a special roundtable discussion about the issues, challenges and barriers for women entrepreneurs in America.
The global platform achieved by enlarging the scope of theClubhou.se may be one of the best-kept secrets in Augusta.
So, what if everyone in midlevel American cities got their shot to build the business of their dreams? “What I see all the time is, [people growing] up in a community where everybody felt like they needed permission from somebody to do what they wanted to do,” said Parker. “All we really do is tell people that you can do whatever you want, and we’ve got your back. And we try to help make connections and remove some barriers for them along the way.”
Augusta can be part of a mesh network of cities all working together to drive economic opportunity. (Based on the language of the Internet, a mesh network is a group of devices that work together as one to boost the power of the whole.) “For every entrepreneur that starts a business, that’s four jobs in a community,” Parker said. “[Mesh networking] can take midsize communities and allow them to grow their collaborative density with one another so that they can have the same economic power a large city might have.”
Parker’s eventual goal is to expand the mesh network to five states every year, with a goal of 10,000 entrepreneurs annually going through the program in all 50 states. “That should enable us to open up $100 million a year in commercial capital investments to entrepreneurs who are facing poverty,” he said. “It’s why mesh networking and what theClubhou.se does to enable workforce development is so powerful.”
10 Years Later
Parker remembers having lunch with Rick Allen in 2012. “I would tell him a lot about what I was hoping to do with theClubhou.se before it was a thing,” he said. “I just remember him always trying to give me this long-term focus, asking me, ‘Eric, if this is successful, what does this look like in 10 years?’
“I could not answer his question 10 years ago. I just knew that it would be great and that I had to do it.”
Today, Parker is confident in his answer for the next 10 years. “I know my goal: My goal is to get to a billion a year of economic impact. That means going to 10,000 startups a year and 40,000 jobs through the work that we do — and having all of that at a national level headquartered here in Augusta.” To date, theClubhou.se has already created more than 1,500 jobs in the Savannah River Region, comparable to entities such as the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Appling, which brought 800.
Those are the numbers. Then there’s the story: “If there was a young person in Augusta now, and they stay here, could we fuel them to be that next unicorn [a privately held startup company valued at over US$1 billion]?” said Belangia. “Could that company come out of Augusta? And could there be a young person in 10 years who would say, ‘Yeah, I started here.’”
Parker and Belangia can already see that future happening from their windows overlooking Augusta’s downtown — the companies and people who wouldn’t exist in Augusta had it not been for theClubhou.se. “There’s the reality of where we are today,” Parker said, “and there’s an idealized vision of a future that we see.”
“Innovation, entrepreneurship and small business growth are the keys to growing our economy. I am so proud to have partnered with theClubhou.se from almost the start, and it’s wonderful to see all they have accomplished not only in Augusta, but for small business owners around the country. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for not only this organization but all of the innovators and entrepreneurs who emerge from its impact and influence.”
— U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-GA-12, longtime supporter
Photography by Jane Kortright
Appears in the June/July 2022 issue of Augusta Magazine.