The Coworker is a new weekly series by MTLinTECH that spotlights one Montreal coworking space every Tuesday.
Walking into Le Salon 1861 and learning its long and winding story from over 100 years ago to today proved to be an educational experience.
The former St. Joseph’s Church at 550 rue Richmond in Little Burgundy is yet another project by Montreal real estate businesswoman Natalie Voland.
While the entrepreneur clarified for us that coworking does exist at Le Salon 1861, its mission goes far beyond the concept.
Along with her role as president of Salon 1861, Voland is the president of Gestion immobilière Quo Vadis and sits on the board of directors of ETS (École de technologie supérieure) and Montreal’s ambitious Quartier D’innovation (QI) project. Earlier in her career, Voland served as a social worker at the Montreal General Hospital before taking over her father’s Complexe du Canal Lachine property management giant several years ago at just 23.
Skip ahead today and Voland’s soaring portfolio includes over 1.5 million square feet of real estate and 500 different companies, including the building that houses the LORI Hub coworking space for women entrepreneurs (featured in The Coworker on June 28) and Le Salon 1861.
She was even the founder of the Communoloft coworking space, one of the city’s first when it opened in 2009.
Voland is the type of personality that speaks a mile-a-minute, confident every step of the way. She was intense, funny, feisty and even self-deprecating all in the same minute. Buzz phrases occasionally peppered her speech, like “nest-egging,” “peanut butter and jelly moment” (or “PB&J moment”), “evolution” and “continuum,” along with hip new-age concepts like “triple bottom line” and “zero waste policy.”
Once past the smart words, Voland proved to be perhaps one of the most interesting entrepreneurs we’ve had the pleasure of interviewing.
“A long time ago we made a very long study. In it we asked, ‘Can we make money doing good?'” Voland told MTLinTECH. “I feel very strongly that we can and this has been my life’s work.”
Le Salon 1861, which first opened its doors in November 2015, rents space to entrepreneurs looking for a place to work for $350 per month, but the old church prefers to call itself a “co-creation space.” Simply put, building out just a coworking atmosphere wouldn’t accomplish what Voland wanted to accomplish.
“I think coworking will only succeed if the people working in this environment are completely surrounded by business opportunities and all the resources they need. Otherwise it’s just a shared space,” she said.
Voland’s vision is for entrepreneurs and small businesses to work out of the space while being supported by big-named corporations and firms like the BDC, Videotron, Richter and McMillan LLP, where the end result not only benefits the health of companies but also the surrounding neighbourhood, Little Burgundy.
At Le Salon 1861 one might stumble upon a large tech event on the upper floor (we’re told it seats 1,000 but we couldn’t view it on the day of our interview), or smaller hackathons and pitch-offs on the main floor. Along with various spaces to sit and work, Le Salon 1861 has an “Innovation Lab,” sponsored by the Fonds de solidarité FTQ and the QI, where 16 tech entrepreneurs focused on social innovation will get a place to work for a period of time.
The entire space also includes conferences rooms, a kitchen area, a reading room for kids, a restaurant with locally-grown food and its own entrance and “break-out rooms.”
Voland stressed that the entire building is energy-efficient and eco-friendly. Le Salon 1861 is a Certified B Corp, which is meant to ensure rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. The entire space was renovated upon purchase over a year ago, but anything that could be reused and recycled was salvaged.
Included in the space’s focus on social impact is a keen consideration for the Little Burgundy neighbourhood it sits in. Voland said it contains, per capita, the highest concentration of social housing in north America, with 1,700 low-income housing units. As part of Le Salon 1861’s programming it does work with local schools to bring low-income students in to learn about entrepreneurship. It also helps support 15 different research grants where students work together with local citizens, the startup community and bigger corporations.
Adorned on part of Le Salon 1861’s walls is even a McGill University educational art initiative displaying the history of Little Burgundy’s lively jazz scene. Several popular nightclubs featuring homegrown and international performers like Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones lined its historic streets like St. Antoine and Notre Dame.
Indeed, beginning in 1887, Little Burgundy came to acquire “a unique niche as the home of Montreal’s working-class English-speaking black community,” and still holds a spirit of social activism working from the roots of numerous social organizations that this community once founded, like the Women’s Coloured Club of Montreal in 1902, the Union United Congregational Church in 1907, and the Negro Community Center in 1927.
Voland can perhaps be seen in that new wave of people trying to make a difference, with her efforts coming through the promotion of entrepreneurship.
“If you think about some of the kids here they’re not necessarily thinking ‘I’m going to grow up and be an entrepreneur,’ they’re going to say ‘I’m not even going to go to university.’ There are third generations here on social assistance and many kids go to school without breakfast” said Voland. “We’re trying to help pay it forward.”
When it comes to the startups working in Le Salon 1861, Voland always felt it was much more worth it offering them a place where they could gain support from larger players rather than around companies of the same stature.
I’m not doing this because I want to run coworking spaces, I’m doing this because I believe in entrepreneurship,” she said. “The people that hire the most new, sustained jobs are startups. The failure rates of startups are too high for my liking, so what can we do to surround them so they don’t fail? Most entrepreneurs don’t fail because they have a bad idea. They don’t know how to execute, they don’t have access to things they need and they make mistakes going forward. Well, now we have a whole bunch of people, from Richter to McMillan, who work in those companies that have rolled up their sleeves and say they want to help.
Along the way, Le Salon 1861 won’t take any intellectual property from startups, nor will it take equity from companies.
“All we’re doing is connecting people. That’s it,” said Voland.
The businesswoman Voland also made sure to emphasize that Le Salon 1861 is a for-profit space. The space mainly earns its money through renting coworking space, conference rooms or renting the entire building to businesses who want to do conferences.
As the conversation came to a close the best of Voland seemed to come out, especially when we discussed people who had doubted her throughout her career.
“I love what I do,” she said. “There’s a lot of people who say no. If I could tell you the amount of times people told me I couldn’t do something… its my fuel. Really, I cant? Watch me.”
Her views on the startup community’s seemingly obsessive interest in “failure” was equally as opinionated and perhaps justified in its honesty.
“Everyone’s gotten very excited about this failure thing but I can’t embrace that. I see failure as your lack of trying. You gave up. I didn’t see that every time I tried to do a project and it didn’t happen exactly the way I thought it would happen. I pivoted. My ultimate goal was this and if that was how it turned out, I had to adapt to it.”
Well said, Ms. Voland.
The buzz phrases may endure, but failure is one word that won’t end up in her vocabulary anytime soon. And, we hope, the same goes for Le Salon 1861.
Have you read the rest of The Coworker series?
La Gare positions itself in the heart of the action – September 6
Should I stay or should I go? – August 30
Petite Nuwrk has grand visions – August 16
Esplanade creates a familial atmosphere – August 2
Le 402 is small but the price is nice – July 26