I have had amazing experiences in Grounded at Echo run by David and Karolien van Berkel. The two managed to create two different spaces that function as a cafe and co-sharing work space. I believe that they are making it easier for start-ups and freelancers to find a place to work. Ultimately both spaces are governed by an organisation called Echo Youth Development which focuses on empowering youth. They support Our Friends through hosting CRNCH sessions every month. We’ll be launching the website for CRNCH in the next month. They feature in #DIYwithOF because they are changing how we work in Pretoria.
You two created Grounded Coffee and Gathering and Grounded Work. Grounded Coffee and Gathering functions as a lovely café and reading spot while Grounded Work is a coworking space. What inspired you to create the two spaces?
So, Grounded Work and Grounded Coffee and Gathering both fall under the same Grounded at Echo umbrella, which originally arose out of Echo Youth Development’s need for a relevant space that could serve as an interface between us and the larger Pretoria community. Coffee and Gathering came first, both because coffee tends to be a catalyst for conversation and because we felt there was a lack of establishments offering good coffee and deli meals in our area.
It wasn’t long before we saw that there was a significant community of freelancers and creatives who were working at the coffee shop due to a lack suitable alternatives. While being great for the vibe of the coffee shop, this was not always ideal for those working due to the number of distractions etc. Karolien was previously a freelance designer who had also experienced this first hand, so when another shop space became available, starting a coworking space seemed the next logical step…and so Grounded Work was born.
You’re part of Pretoria’s coworking revolution. How does it feel to assist small and start-up organisations in this way?
We see it as such a privilege to be part of all the cool things that are happening around us, and it feels amazing. People will often ask how the coworking space is going, if it is financially profitable, and the short answer is no. It’s sustainable, yes, but the biggest profit or benefit we have derived from Grounded Work has been the number of initiatives which have either used the space as a launching platform, or with which we have been able to partner so that they are more empowered to do what they do well.
I’m sure the journey to create the spaces wasn’t easy at times. Can you tell me a story about one challenge that you faced?
It’s been an incredibly steep growth curve for us, in terms of regulations, planning, people management, DIY, marketing etc. and at times it’s overwhelming, but then we simply have to look back to all of the things that have happened around us and it all seems worth it again.
A specific challenge which really got to us was renovating Grounded Work’s space ourselves while Karolien was running Coffee and Gathering full-time and I was part-time barista and holding down a day job. After our shifts, we would paint, hammer, weld, drill (and sometimes cry :P) till late and it all culminated into an eruption of emotion one particular evening where some furniture I was installing had been crookedly welded together. Let’s just say it got a little ugly…
On a slightly more metaphysical note, we’ve also found it challenging at times having our relationships with our staff and with each other constantly being on display to the public. Whether we’re relieved, frustrated, angry, happy or whatever, we always have to keep facing our customers…and grumpy frowns are bad for business.
You live in Pretoria. In your vision, what does your ideal city look like?
We see ‘ideal’ as a journey rather than a destination. Pretoria is already changing dramatically and we’d love to see that continue. In particular we’d love to see more integrated public spaces, that being outside in our lovely climate is the norm rather than the exception. Parks, street corners, community gardens and spaces, festivals, markets, these are all key. Really we just want people to meet each other, that’s when the magic happens on its own, without any management or manufacturing.
Following on that question, what small steps could you do right now, or are doing, to make that future happen?
It’s amazing how so many people seem to have the same general vision for Pretoria, and South Africa, even if the details differ slightly. We’re trying to capitalise on that by facilitating other visionaries own pursuits, providing resources and a platform where we can. This has included hosting free weekly Zulu lessons, partnering with local initiatives Park Exchange and CRNCH, providing office space for Echo, hosting an Echo art workshop with local artist Martyn Schickerling, having a rotating art exhibition on the Wall at Coffee and Gathering, and hosting local musicians at our Friday Jam on the last Friday of each month.
Don’t tell anyone, but we’re also in the planning phase for a local community garden and a regular storytelling session…watch this space!
I saw that the Echo Youth Development is a shareholder at Grounded at Echo. Could you tell us more about the organisation and your involvement in it?
Echo Youth Development is a community catering for young people without an established support base. This is typically youth that have been expelled from orphanages/foster homes, are on probation, were living on the street etc. It’s not just a formal institution, but a truly communal group of people doing life together at home, on camps, at school and work and so on.
Each Echo home has a number of parents or mentors who have grown up in relatively stable environments and who now choose to live with others who haven’t grown up this way. This is always at an emotional, financial, and time cost to themselves, but it’s never begrudgingly so. Everyone is invested in each other and we seem to always receive more than we give.
Karolien and I met through Echo in 2012, and I lived in one of the Echo communes from 2010 until 2013 when Karolien and I were married. After this we continued to live next to one of the Echo houses for high school girls and enjoy being part of various camps and other social activities.
Echo Youth Development has been running since 2001, that’s about 15 years. What kind of impact have you been able to create?
Since we’ve been part of Echo, we’ve seen the biggest impact has been the relationships that have formed. Many of the youth who have lived at Echo continue to stay in contact after they’ve moved on and are self-sustaining. Not every story ends positively, but seeing someone from a broken home with no resources being able to complete their studies, find a stable job, start a family, and contribute to their community is always incredible.
On a physical level Echo has grown from 1 house to 3 communes and 2 children’s homes in Villieria, 1 children’s home in Garsfontein, 1 commune in Centurion, 3 communes in Johannesburg, and 2 communes in Cape Town. We also have programs in 11 primary schools, an Education Fund for tertiary studies, an after school homework program, a number of camps and outreaches to rural communities. All in all, we now have well over 100 permanent residents and an extended community running into the hundreds.
You also support initiatives like Park Exchange and CRNCH. Why do you put in effort to support these youth-led organisations?
These initiatives are so exciting and way beyond our capacity or capability to have dreamed up ourselves. We really want to see them continue to grow and inspire; to effect real and positive change on the communities within which they’re based. I guess in order to see this we just want to reduce some of the obstacles they may face and support them where and how we can.
This feature falls in our “Do It Yourself” series. We’re trying to get young people to see different ways of handling their futures. What advice would you give to young people about starting their own projects and/or businesses?
It’s sucks to be so clichéd, but I think Nike hit it on the head with ‘just do it’. Too many ideas and dreams stumble at the planning/proposal/funding-seeking stages and I think our experience has been that you just have to start where you are with what you have and, if it’s meant to be, growth will follow.
Core to this theme is the idea that you should do what you love irrespective of whether or not it takes off. If you enjoy making music, don’t become a banker, make music. If you love tinkering, don’t become a salesperson, rent a workshop and create. We really don’t give enough attention to this truth, but when we do…
Lastly, hard work. Lots and lots of hard work and not giving up when the going gets though. I think a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs have an overly romanticised idea of what it means to be business owners. Accepting the financial and lifestyle sacrifices that come with building a business as part of the adventure is key. Nothing that’s worthwhile comes easy. For that reason, also I believe that the love for what you do and not the money has to be your main driving force.
Photos by Grounded at Echo