Co.Starters Graduate Kim Lee Realizes Dream of Coworking Venue

Kim Lee started the Forge coworking space. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Long before she enrolled in Birmingham’s Co.Starters program, Kim Lee had the dream and business plan for what eventually became The Forge, a downtown professional coworking space on the mezzanine level of the historic Pizitz Building.

She was already negotiating for locations and thought she didn’t have the time or perhaps the need for Co.Starters training. The program, administered by Create Birmingham, is designed to equip entrepreneurs with the tools and resources needed to succeed.

However, when location negotiations kept stalling and possibilities falling through, the Samford University graduate changed her mind and joined the Co.Starters class of fall 2016.

“I was back at square one as far as location, so I decided I’m going to do Co.Starters as my job,” Lee recalls. It’s a decision she’s now grateful for as she overlooks the Forge, an 8,600-square-foot rectangle of modern work spaces and conference rooms that opened in September 2017.

Within a week of starting Co.Starters classes, the mezzanine at the Pizitz building became an option for the location of Forge. During the negotiations, she couldn’t talk about the exciting option she was pursuing. Every week, she promised to tell her classmates as soon as she could. “I was consumed by the lease negotiations,” she recalled, but still worked the Co.Starters program.

The connections and planning tools that come with the business training continue to help her, she said, more than a year after opening Forge. She said it helped “just being with others who were going through the same thing.”

“I had thought through most of the steps I needed to take, but Co.Starters gave me a chance to go back and evaluate my business plan and to talk with classmates and graduates,” Lee said. “Before Co.Starters, I was just talking to my husband about it,” she laughed. “Connecting with more people in the city helped. I made connections that are still a part of my business and life.”

A Knoxville, Tennessee, native, Lee graduated with a business degree from Samford University, where she met her future husband, Murray Lee. The couple moved from Birmingham to Missouri, where Murray Lee attended seminary at Covenant Theological Seminary near St. Louis, which trains leaders for the Presbyterian Church of America. While there, Kim attended the seminary to earn a master’s degree in counseling.

The move back to Birmingham was prompted by a call from Covenant Presbyterian Church of Homewood, Murray Lee’s home church, which his parents helped found. The church asked the young pastor to come home to help start a sister PCA church, now known as Cahaba Park Church.

A job Kim took when the family returned to Birmingham, as director of operations and special projects for a commercial cleaning company in Birmingham, helped her find her calling, she said. “Customer service and hospitality, I found my niche there.”

She’d been aware of coworking and the idea for the Forge began to form. Now, as sole owner of the Forge, she stays focused on that niche.

“It fits everything we love about this community, the hospitality, job development and a growing downtown all combined in one,” Lee said. “I love the idea of creating and growing jobs in Birmingham.”

It was four months after Co.Starters training ended for Lee that she could finally tell her classmates that the Forge would be locating on the mezzanine level of the 1923 Pizitz building at 19th Street and 2nd Avenue North downtown, where the Birmingham-based department store originated.

The sleek, modern design of the working spaces, conference rooms and offices were designed by Lee’s mother in law, Emily Lee, owner of EmLee Designs.

Instructors Jacqueline Jones and Salaam Green at Co.Starters Session (Source: Jackie Romine Walburn)

Retaining the distinct historical features of the department store – including ornate columns and plaster walls – the Forge design includes a kitchen area, several conference rooms, plus dedicated offices and a phone booth to help with privacy in the coworking environment.

Memberships at the Forge range from part time to full time, from open coworking spaces to dedicated offices. The Forge space covers the perimeter of the Mezzanine, overlooks the Pizitz Food Hall and is accessible through the entrance to the Pizitz residences on the third through eighth floors.

The influence of Co.Starters remains, she said, through lessons learned and through several graduates who belong to the Forge, including instructors in the Co.Starters’ 17th class, Jacqueline Jones, Salaam Green and Russell Hooks.

Two years after she joined the class, Kim Lee is a believer in the on-going value of Co.Starters training. “I can’t think of a better ecosystem for small business in Birmingham.”