Susan Kasten
February 04, 2022

Innovation hub

A thriving business incubator and shared workspace on the college’s doorstep is attracting students and alumni into its orbit.

Kari Swirth shared a tip as she and Associate Professor of Economics Laura Grube’08 led students on a tour of Irontek one warm September afternoon. They should consider staying in the city of Beloit after graduation, Swirth said, especially if they plan on starting a business or working for a startup.

Swirth is community manager of the 18,000 square-foot Irontek, a shared workspace that opened in 2016 across the river from the college.

Situated at the heart of the Ironworks campus, a bustling tech hub that’s home to about 20 small and large businesses, around 1,000 employees, and the Stateline Family YMCA, Irontek offers a variety of office and meeting spaces for startups, freelancers, and professionals who are working remotely.

Part of the former Beloit Corporation foundry, Irontek features huge windows, open spaces, and the vibe of an urban shared workspace, with fast internet, coffee, craft beer, and the chance to rub elbows with other entrepreneurs. Beloit’s Chamber of Commerce is one of the building’s anchor tenants.

Only steps from the western edge of campus, the facility is accessible via a footbridge that connects the Rock River’s east and west sides.

Grube has been familiarizing students with Irontek for the past four years. Her first tour was part of a First-Year Initiatives course she designed and taught about the city’s industrial history and the companies that now call Beloit home.

“It was fun to show students how the physical space that was once the Beloit Corporation is now an entity that seeks to foster new businesses and, specifically, help transition Beloit into the 21st century knowledge economy,” Grube says.

Alumni and student connections

Grube is referring to how Irontek complements its workspaces — ranging from inexpensive shared desks to private corner offices — with programs designed to nurture new enterprises and offshoots of existing companies. The goal is to help these organizations establish roots in the Beloit region.

Most notable is gener8tor, a platform for the creative economy that connects startup founders, investors, corporations, job seekers, universities, musicians, and artists. Several of its national programs operate at Irontek, including Venture Studio, gener8tor’s flagship program in Beloit, which is run by alumnus Alex Iseri’11.

Iseri returned to Beloit in 2020 to become managing director of Venture Studio, part of gener8tor’s venture capital arm, which has worked to build startups backed by venture capital in communities that would typically not host such startups. Iseri says that by doing so, the studio helps drive economic development in these communities while providing investors with significant returns. Venture Studio’s 16-week intensive program includes coaching, mentorship, access to resources, and a $100,000 equity investment.

“I believe gener8tor’s platform provides as much dollar-for-dollar value as any economic development program in the country,” says Iseri. “It helps communities invest in the best, brightest, most ambitious people who are interested in making a change in their community and looking for a great partner.”

Irontek offers other programs through gener8tor, too, including gALPHA, a free, four-week pre-accelerator program that helps potential startups refine a marketable idea. Another, gBETA, also free, is a seven-week competitive accelerator, which is open to only five companies at a time. Irontek and Hendricks Commercial Properties sponsor gALPHA, gBETA, and the Venture Studio.

To date, six Beloit students have participated in gAlpha, while two college teams completed gBETA. Beloit sophomore Jalen Ponder may be one of the youngest entrepreneurs ever to take advantage of these programs. He participated in gBETA at Irontek while still in high school, then completed gALPHA as a Beloit College student.

In gBETA, Ponder worked on supercharging Evendtor, a web-based company he founded that matches food trucks with venues and hosts. Its clients range from private companies bringing trucks to their businesses as an employee perk to larger-scale public events that feature food trucks as part of the entertainment.

“This was in the height of Covid,” Ponder says, adding that the accelerator helped his company expand into new markets that had potential when many others were shut down. “We started selling to health centers, the auto industry, apartment complexes — places where people were still going,” he says. “gBETA pushes you to see what’s possible and tweaks your business model. It’s put a nice ribbon on all the skills I’ve learned so far.”

Ponder started another digital marketing business, which he took through the gALPHA accelerator. He’s since pulled back from that enterprise to focus on college.

Irontek has another direct tie to the Beloit alumni community. Isaac Bamgbose’13 worked for Hendricks Commercial Properties in their earliest stages of developing the property.

“Isaac was a major champion of the Irontek project,” says Brian Morello’85, director of the college’s entrepreneurship center, adding that Bamgbose did most of the research and ran point on developing it. A former member of the college’s Board of Trustees, Bamgbose has since moved on, but his role as a fundamental force in developing Irontek continues to resonate in Beloit.

Morello sees Irontek as a strong complement to the college’s focus on innovation and entrepreneurship and a place where alumni can return, possibly after logging a couple of years in the workforce.

“Teaching the entrepreneurial mindset and foundational skills of venturing are key CELEB deliverables,” he explains, referring to the college’s entrepreneurship center. “And, when a student or, most likely, one of our graduates, is ready to scale a business or commercialize an idea, Irontek is an ideal place to take that next step.”

Origin stories and partnerships

In its first life, the Ironworks campus was a humming factory that made paper-making machinery. Originally known as Iron Works, then the Beloit Corporation, it employed thousands of people at its zenith. When it closed in 1999, the expansive 24-acre industrial site faced an uncertain future: either a wrecking ball or a second act.

Some of Irontek's workspaces are converted shipping containers outfitted with added air ventilati... Some of Irontek's workspaces are converted shipping containers outfitted with added air ventilation and sliding glass doors.
Credit: Direction Photography
Fortunately for Beloit, it would not stay quiet for long, nor would it disappear. Only a few years after the closure, Beloit-based Hendricks Development Corporation started the revival by purchasing and reimagining the site. After only five years, Irontek, as a central part of the larger Ironworks development, has taken off as a regenerative force in the region.

Irontek is also a good neighbor. Besides offering students a place to observe entrepreneurship and self-employment in action, its reason for being connects with the college’s existing career-ready programs. Career Channels, Career Works, Community-Based Learning, and CELEB all guide students toward fulfilling lives and careers after Beloit, and Irontek and its tenants are providing examples and opportunities.

“Irontek offers events students can attend, including gBETA pitch nights,” says Professor Grube. “The businesses that operate out of Irontek present opportunities for job shadowing, internships, and employment. I’ve been excited to see several Beloit College alumni accept full-time jobs with companies that have offices in Irontek.”

Jessica Fox-Wilson’98, who directs the college’s Career Works office, also sees Irontek as an excellent partner. Since the summer of 2016, seven students have officially registered their internships at either Irontek or one of its resident companies, and she says additional students intern there without formalizing their experience for academic credit.

Fox-Wilson notes that beyond internships, though, Irontek tenants like Brownfield Environmental Engineering, gener8tor, gBETA, and others — including Irontek itself — are stepping up to support students in other ways. For example, they participate in two key college programs: Career Accelerator, a set of workshops, panels, and networking opportunities for students held over eight days in January, and the Local to Global Career Networking Fair, which takes place on campus in November.

Just walking through the doors of Irontek is exhilarating. The vibrant workspace is buzzing with activity, beckoning to students, faculty, staff, and people in the community to energize their remote work, be part of a productive community while working solo, or join a company with space in one of the most contemporary workplaces in the region.

“The Irontek facility truly mirrors what it’s like to work and communicate in a 21st century workplace,” says Fox-Wilson.

Susan Kasten is the editor of Beloit College Magazine.

People to Watch

  Alex Iseri’11, managing director, Venture Studio

Alex Iseri'11 Credit: Greg AndersonAlex Iseri’s boomerang Beloit journey began with a political science degree, traversed through Nicaragua via the Peace Corps, then returned to Beloit at one of the city’s game-changing new employers: Irontek.

Iseri credits Beloit faculty, especially political science professors Ann Davies and Georgia Duerst-Lahti, with informing the way he approaches learning. As managing director of Venture Studio, he draws on these strategies regularly as he gets up to speed on new industries and trends to help clients solve problems, identify new markets, and make breakthroughs.

He discovered his interest in community and economic development while working for AmeriCorps after graduating from Beloit, then earned a master’s degree in international development. He pursued economic development in Nicaragua through the Peace Corps and ran a small economic development non-profit in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula before returning to Beloit in October 2020 to run the Studio.

“The essence of my job is to do whatever’s necessary to help founders be successful,” he says. “Almost by definition, a lot of what they are trying to do is brand new. It doesn’t exist in the market, or if it does, it’s not well-defined. You feel like you’re breaking new ground with them.”

  Jalen Ponder’24, student entrepreneur

Jalen Ponder24 Credit: Nico Doret’24Jalen Ponder carries a card in his wallet with his goals written on it. That small piece of paper speaks to the kind of steely determination and practical wisdom he brings to everything he does.

The Beloit sophomore has already started and run numerous businesses, including his very first — at the tender age of 11. As a kid growing up in Detroit, he would explore dollar stores looking for items to buy cheaply. He’d repackage them thematically, then sell them for profits on e-Bay. His goal was far from selfish, though he admittedly came up with the idea solely to make money. He was aiming to raise funds to help his aunt cover some medical bills.

Now, he runs Evendtor, a web-based business that helps market food trucks to potential clients. He’s not sure of his eventual major, but last fall, he was taking an entrepreneurship course, and he’s completed both the gALPHA and gBETA accelerators at Irontek.

He embraces the challenges of running a business and wants to find a way to point his efforts in an altruistic direction, either helping to address climate change or working with inner city kids to build their confidence, or both.

Ponder is clearly someone to watch. “I don’t want to die with anything inside me,” he says with conviction. “I want to be always there, doing the best I can. I’m going for the number one spot.”

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