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Building a Community of Entrepreneurs

Originally published in GW Alumni 

Jennifer Maher, CCAS BA ’04, is an Amtrak warrior, and her office is her backpack. But that’s how she prefers things.

As CEO of 1776 — the Northeast Corridor’s largest network of entrepreneurial incubators — she travels to their nine campuses (soon to be 10), with the majority of her time split between Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

“We provide desks, office, conference, and event space, like a lot of providers do, but we are application based. You can’t just sign up,” she explains. “We want to curate the right membership. We pool like-minded companies together.” For example, they have a drone facility and lab space that’s focused on biotech and robotics. Their next campus, opening soon in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, will be inside a retail mall and will be product-based. They’ll help e-commerce companies that need temporary brick and mortar space for demos and collecting customer feedback.

In addition, 1776 offers accelerator programs, where companies apply for 12 weeks of intense mentoring and advising. “We council people and startups a lot on when and how to take investment money,” Maher says. “Our success is measured by the success of our members and how their companies grow – that’s the biggest mission of our company.” They also aim to strengthen economies and cities by developing a strong community of entrepreneurs.

Maher and her team know the ins and outs from their own experience. This dual-offering setup is the outcome of a merger between 1776 and Benjamin’s Desk, a co-working space company that Maher started with her husband in 2011. They built everything on their own terms for years, before taking on investors, so they understand what it takes to build a business.

After she made many successful real estate investments, after the 2Jennifer Maher running with her two children008 financial crisis, and got her commercial real estate broker’s license, she and her husband saw an opportunity when co-working spaces were relatively new. In 2012, they opened 3,000 square feet of co-working space in Philadelphia, and one of their first clients was Uber, which was gearing up for its northeast expansion. From there, Benjamin’s Desk grew rapidly.

Fast forward to the summer of 2017, when they started conversations with 1776. “We had a good real estate model, and they had the incubation and programming model. [The merger] exploded us from being in Philly to nine campuses in the northeast,” she says, adding that her goal is to expand to 20 campuses in 2019.

It’s easy to see why she’s now at the helm of 1776. But looking back, she never expected this path.

From a young age, she wanted to be a criminal defense attorney. At GW, she double majored in psychology and criminal justice – and she did it in just three years. It was at law school when her path started to change. After clerkships on both the defense and prosecutor side, she realized there was a heavy emotional toll dealing with people’s lives. “I thought it would be easier to deal with money,” she says.

Right out of law school, she got a dream job at a firm – in civil law focused on franchise law. But she quickly learned that she was much more interested in the business side than the legal side. “So, I started thinking about plotting my way,” she says, adding, “and I didn’t like working for other people.” These are more reasons why the entrepreneurial space is a perfect fit, even if it took a while to get on this path.

“GW dramatically shaped the course of my life,” Maher says. From the moment she stepped on campus, she fell in love with the school. “It was everything I needed,” she says, reflecting on the urban setting, being exposed to things on a global scale, and developing strong friendships. She’s part of a group of six women who met in the dorms and have remained best friends. They’re all overachievers, with 14 degrees among them.

When Maher was a student, the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship didn’t exist. But now, she’s giving back to GW through its entrepreneurship programming. Last spring, she was a final judge for the 2018 GW New Venture Competition. One of the semi-finalists, a company called Last Call, whose two co-founders are a recent grad and current senior, is part of a new 1776 accelerator program that started last September. In this new program, 1776 doesn’t take any equity or provide any capital.

Despite her workload, volunteering, and making sure she has enough quality family time with her husband and two kids (ages 6 and 4), she still finds time to train for triathlons, Ironman competitions, and marathons. She even did a half marathon pushing both her kids in a stroller. “I get the best business ideas and epiphanies while running,” she explains.

As a self-proclaimed overachiever, her advice to budding entrepreneurs is two-fold: keep an open mind and make sure you have grit and perseverance. “When you get knocked down, get up,” she says, because in entrepreneurship, “the highs are high, and the lows are really low.”

-Christine Cole