The unofficial history of Fab Lab Tulsa.
Where should I begin? I first learned of the Fab Lab concept at the Grand Hyatt in downtown Wichita, KS back in 2008. I was sitting with a professional colleague who had learned about Fab Labs directly from Neil Gershenfeld at MIT. This colleague is a pretty progressive fellow, at least technically so I was at intrigued at first. At that point, on a hot July day, I had no idea where my interest would take me.
Following that discussion, I returned home to Tulsa after the conference with no thought that anything would come of what I'd learned in Wichita. I brought the idea up to my wife who works for a local non-profit. We thought Fab Lab's might be a neat idea to help fight poverty and help people help themselves, which is essentially her employer's aim. She and I toyed with the idea but basically it didn't go anywhere.
At least it didn't go anywhere until I happened to learn that my colleague was looking to place a Fab Lab in Wichita. That really piqued my interest. It occurred to me then that a successful Fab Lab in Wichita might mean that there could be a Fab Lab in Tulsa. Anticipating this eventuality, I notified my colleague that my wife worked for a large non-profit in Tulsa which might make a great home for a Fab Lab. This piqued his interest as well.
Turns out that the Fab Lab in Wichita never got off the ground. But having already shown my hand about my wife's employer the effort immediately transferred to Tulsa. The aim was to convince my wife's employer to adopt Fab Lab as part of their regular programming. It was marginally successful at the beginning especially because we had some major underwriting from a corporate sponsor (unnamed). Everything appeared to be going well. My wife's employer was intrigued enough to send her and one of her co-workers to Boston to visit MIT and learn about Fab Lab in Dec 2008. I thought we were on a roll and off to a good start.
The key word is that I "thought" we were off to a good start. Things weren't bad but my wife's employer wasn't ready to take the plunge. We were a bit disappointed but they did give her wide latitude, along with her co-worker, to pursue placing a Fab Lab somewhere with their implicit support.
Using their connections, we were directed to new non-profit called Global Gardens located in the Eugene Field area of West Tulsa. Global Gardens is a local food educational programming emphasizing learning through gardening. It's a great grass roots effort and quite successful. They had everything we needed...solid funding, a facility, a novel program, and a deserving neighborhood. We courted them pretty hard but it was a stretch for them to incorporate Fab Lab into their little non-profit. That was in early 2009.
By that point we were a little discouraged. Myself, my wife and her co-worker had to start from ground zero again. Fortunately, Global Gardens had a connection to another community garden in the Kendall-Whittier Neighborhood. This neighborhood is deserving, is located in central Tulsa (not West Tulsa) and is situated a block west of the University of Tulsa. All in all, this looked like the right place to be. It was even the home of a long standing non-profit who could be a great host for Fab Lab Tulsa; it bore the name Kendall Whittier, Inc. or KWI for short. KWI started as Kendall Whittier Ministries in 1968 between a group of local churches. KWI operated a food pantry, an afterschool program, and a community garden...why not operate a Fab Lab too.
My wife and her co-worker approached KWI about the Fab Lab to see if there was interest. We struck gold and were informally brought into the fold as a potential program of KWI. There were a number of obstacles yet to overcome, including building community support, raising money and finding a facility. All of these challenges had to be met before we could really operate as a program of KWI. There were a number of benefits to becoming part of an existing non-profit, including administrative functions (payroll, staff, insurance, etc.), existing donor connections, IRS 501(c)3 status, an established and positive community reputation, and a governing structure. KWI had these in spades.
As part of KWI, we hosted our very first community meeting at the Kendall Whittier Educare facility in October 2009. Our stated goal at the meeting was to open the doors in October 2010, maybe even on the date 10/10/10. 65 guests attended that first meeting, owed mainly to friends, co-workers and our personal networks. One of those connections produced our very first donor, the Gettys Charitable Trust. By December, Mr. Gettys had agreed to pledge all the money we needed to purchase equipment for the lab. No small sum, indeed...he was truly generous. Whatever we said at that community meeting it was enough to win his support, which continues to this day.
We knew that the 3 legs of our funding strategy were finding resources for our equipment, our staff and our facility. With one of those legs complete, we turned our attention to finding a facility. Dan Moran, one of our dedicated founders, spent hours combing the neighborhood for a suitable location. We visited a number of buildings, and were close on a couple of occasions to landing in some magnificent and historic buildings.
At this point, we were in for a wild ride but didn't quite know it yet. Our partnership with KWI reached a cross roads in the Spring of 2010. Our planning team was developing a slightly different vision for Fab Lab Tulsa than would be compatible with KWI. At the same time we were about to begin working with our largest funder to date, The Hardesty Family Foundation. The support from the Hardesty's would eventually be substantial enough to earn naming rights to the facility. Between courting our largest donor and contemplating a split from KWI, our planning team was very very busy.
In May 2010, our planning team finally took the necessary steps to part ways with KWI. The separation was tough but was amicable by all parties. The fact is that Fab Lab Tulsa needed KWI support to get off the ground, but as it became clear that we could develop the lab independently that support became less critical. I am thankful for all the KWI did for us.
That same month we outlined the terms of the deal with the Hardesty's. We couldn't accept any funds officially yet but the principles of the agreement were beginning to coalesce.
In July 2010, Fab Lab Tulsa, Inc. was formed. This was a huge milestone in our development. As an Oklahoma Non-Profit Corporation we could begin operating a real business, and making serious progress toward making the lab a reality. We couldn't accept tax-deductible donations yet because we were not yet an IRS 501(c)3 non-profit, a designation which would take another year to achieve. The application with the IRS is not simple by any measure and, like most applicants, we didn't get it right the first time. More on that later.
So then, how did we accept donations and secure more funding? Well, we used the Tulsa Community Foundation. Community Foundations are spread across the US...you probably have one near you. They are community agencies, privately operated and funded, which often serve as fiduciary agents for new or small non-profits. Donations are made to the Tulsa Community Foundation on behalf of Fab Lab Tulsa. The Foundation would, in turn, write the tax receipt to the donor then grant the money to Fab Lab Tulsa. It's all legal and we couldn't have done any of this without their help.
In the early Fall 2010, we started purchasing equipment and storing it in a nearby storage facility. You may recall my analogy about the stool...well, 2 legs were now in final completion...money for equipment was secured and pledged money for our staff was on it's way. The final leg, our facility, was about to take shape.
Earlier in the year our effort had caught the attention of a local philanthropist who also happens to base her office in the Kendall-Whittier Neighborhood. We were fortunate to have a realtor on our planning team which probably helped get us noticed. This philanthropist is heavily invested in the area, even buying run-down homes from "slum lords", renovating them and providing them at affordable rent to deserving families. She happened to have a commercial building, a former car dealership, across the street from her office. After some initial negotiations in late 2010, we had ourselves a home for Fab Lab Tulsa!
As great as things were, we still had enormous obstacles to overcome...namely, our new home needed serious renovations. Our soon-to-be landlord agreed to pay for that work, provided we were able to get a parking variance from the City Council. This was not easy. Besides convincing our district's councilor to support Fab Lab, we also had to assuage our neighbhors and the Kendall-Whittier Neighborhood Association that we were legit and that were wanted to be a positive force in the area...all of this to change the parking at the building.
See, the current Tulsa ordinances specify a certain number of parking spots for new construction or renovations. For us to comply with this ordinance would've required some massive site changes, which would've killed the budget and timeline. Our only option was to get the parking variance, which stated we would only need 1 dedicated parking spot, not the 10+ required by the current ordinance.
To show that we were "playing well with others" we got a letter from our immediate neighbor stating that he agreed to the proposed variance, knowing full well that some of his lot would be used for our parking. We also had to propose some alternate parking arrangements for buses or events. To accomplish this we also got a letter from a nearby church stating that we could use their parking lot during the week.
Having made the right preparations with the right people, we appeared before the City Council and stated our case. Fortunately, it was a unanimous vote and the renovations went full steam ahead. Our landlord provided the architect, the general contractor and the money!
Our original construction schedule indicated the work would start in October and end in January 2011. Well, I learned that those schedules are bogus. The work started in December and finished in June 2011. The building is fabulous, but the delay caused us some serious issues...mainly that we were trying desparately to raise money for the lab, but without a lab to show it was very difficult to explain things to people. We were lucky to find some brave initial funders who could provide money "site unseen" but most don't operate that way. The delay gave us serious heart burn because donors wanted to see an operating facility not just a shell under renovation.
While the building was being gutted and redone, our Board of Directors was taking shape. Without a place to convene, our monthly meetings were held at the University of Tulsa. We elected officers for Fab Lab Tulsa, Inc., elected other Directors, adopted policies to govern our operations and advertised for our first paid position, Lab Manager.
The Board of Directors for Fab Lab Tulsa, Inc., in the eyes of the law, are the actual members of the corporation. The Board is responsible for the finances, hiring, firing and liability of the lab. If the lab gets sued, the Board is the liable entity. Most boards, to protect it's individual Directors, get board insurance to pay for legal costs if issues arise. To be a Director is a high responsibility which comes with obligations to donate both time and money to the organization.
We decided early that our Board needed diverse representation with members who had expertise in law, accounting, fundraising, engineering, entrepreneurship, human resources and IT. We managed to gather all those resources, except IT...we still don't have that spot filled. Personally, I am most grateful for our insight to find a good HR professional to join our team, considering all the potential pitfalls that come with a staff.
More to come...