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Berkshire Bank regional president Malia Lazu is trying to make banking cool.
Enter: Reevx Labs — Berkshire Banks' take on coworking, one of the biggest trends in office spaces.
It's located in Roxbury's Nubian Square. The space is about 2,000 square feet — picture a small cafe — with high ceilings, an exposed brick wall and large glass windows that make it look more like a storefront.
"It's really designed where people can come in, set up a computer, jump online and do some work," Lazu said on a recent afternoon. "It's just an open use space."
Reevx Labs is focused on communities that have been underserved by banks. There's a bank employee posted in the space to offer financial counseling. There are tablets for people to do online banking. The bank also plans to issue microloans of up to $20,000 to entrepreneurs of color.
And unlike other coworking spaces, Reevx Labs is free. It's geared towards entrepreneurs and non-profits. There's also an event space in the back that people can use.
Lazu — a community organizer turned bank executive — says Reevx Labs is Berkshire Banks' experiment with a new kind of banking for the Internet age.
As more people turn to smartphones and online banking, Berkshire Bank is turning to coworking as a way to build relationships — and potentially new customers.
"Legacy banks are working really hard to try to figure out what to do," Lazu says.
"There's less and less branch traffic, but you still need a community presence."
Think about it: When was the last time you went to a bank? Chances are it's been a while.
"Banks play roles in the economy and helping entrepreneurs start businesses is part of the economy, right? So isn't it great to have a room full of businesses that have business accounts? Totally," Lazu says with a laugh. "It just it makes a lot of sense."
Declining branch traffic is something other banks are grappling with too — and many are redesigning their large amounts of real estate. Capital One has created cafe-style branches in several cities, including Boston. And Citizens Bank has a meeting and event space at a Chestnut Hill branch.
"Oh, my God. This space means so much to us, especially communities of color, because it's in the community," says Mattie Deed, who's hoping to use an event space at Reevx Labs to host workshops.
Deed, a financial coach in the mayor's office of workforce development, says Reevx Labs has already become a go-to spot for her to connect with people in the neighborhood.
"I was on my way to a meeting in the community and I saw the sign. And I was curious, like, what's this place? What's up in here?" Deed says. "Now, I'm coming in here once a week and saying, wow, okay, let me say hi to the peeps and then I'm going to my office."
The space is buzzing on a recent afternoon. Most of the tables are full. People pop into the phone booths to make calls. And a few groups rotate through a conference room for meetings.
"I get a lot more work done here," says entrepreneur Wayne Ysaguirre, "And it's, you know, just more fun to be out and more enjoyable to be surrounded by others."
Ysaguirre plans to start a non-profit child care organization. He says he's already met other entrepreneurs here who are working on similar businesses.
"There's not a lot of places for entrepreneurs to congregate and learn from one another in neighborhoods like this," Ysaguirre says. "And so it's just kind of interesting and cool to meet those people right here in Reevx that I, quite frankly, hadn't anticipated or expected."
Kerry Bowie is the managing partner at Msaada Partners, which provides coaching and technical assistance to startups. Bowie usually works out of a coworking space downtown, but often needs to be in Roxbury to meet clients. He says usually when he's in the neighborhood, he's camped out at a coffee shop or restaurant, "but there are only so many muffins you can eat and so many cups of coffee."
Bowie says he now plans to to hold regular office hours at Reevx Labs.
"It's great to know here's a spot that's dedicated and I know I can come in here and it's available," Bowie says.
The coworking craze has been going strong for several years now. Banks, hotels and even office-supply companies are getting in on it. But has it lived up to the hype?
"I don't know if it has or has not lived up to the hype," says Liz Berthelette, research director at the commercial real estate firm Newmark Knight Frank.
"But I think moving forward, there's always going to be a need for this type of space. I don't think coworking ever goes away," Berthelette says. "Especially in tech markets like Boston, where you do have a lot of young companies and they need cost effective options when they're starting out and co-working provides that.
But some experts are skeptical about coworking.
"I don't think coworking adds a lot of value. If so, it was sort of a fad," says Peter Cohan, who teaches business strategy at Babson College.
Cohan says startups would be better off in a structured accelerator program that helps them develop their business or product.
"It only works if both the startups and the owner of the co-working space are tangibly better off," Cohan says.
But Cohan, who used to work in the banking industry, says Reevx Labs is a worthwhile experiment for a bank as the business is being disrupted by technology.
And it's an experiment Berkshire Bank plans to take to other cities too — including Springfield, Providence, and New York.
Lazu says the locations will all carry the Reevx name — which is a play on the words revolution and evolution along with Berkshire Banks' "X" logo.
"Reevx Labs is like that sort of answer of why are we building a branch when we can get done what we need to get done as far as a banking-community relationship, but centering the community first," Lazu says.
At least that's what Lazu is banking on.
This segment aired on March 3, 2020.
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