For Baltimore-based childbirth educator and doula Ashlee Jaye Johnson, finding the right working space was crucial to give her startup the consistent effort it needed. It’s not so easy to find that with a child under 3 years old.
“It would have been really expensive to send my child to a daycare or something like that,” Jaye Johnson says. The average cost of full time childcare for an infant in Baltimore City is upwards of $200 a week or $10,300 a year, according to the Maryland Family Network. “And also I just prefer for her to be closer to me.”
But Jaye Johnson was already finding traction for her business, Birth Class in a Box. Last summer she took an order for 60 boxes; Jaye Johnson invited friends over to help assemble the boxes at her house.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Jaye Johnson moved to the Baltimore area to attend Towson University. She first tried the school’s free coworking space, then checked out Impact Hub Baltimore, inside the historic Art Deco-styled Centre Theatre Building on North Avenue. Neither answered the question of how to care for her child while working.
Then she came across The Cube, a coworking space geared toward mom entrepreneurs, created by Black mom entrepreneurs from Baltimore. The Cube allows members to book affordable babysitting services at a dedicated onsite space whenever they need, for as many hours as they need. Since joining last September, Jaye Johnson now works on her startup most weekdays, usually booking three hours of babysitting time each day. On Wednesdays, she uses The Cube’s recording studio to produce informational social media content on reproductive health.
“The biggest part is having this dedicated time to be consistent in marketing, making connections and following up with people,” Jaye Johnson says. “Before it was kind of just like, hopefully I’ll get an hour to do something today. But now I know that I’m gonna have at least three hours to get some stuff done.” Her daughter plays at The Cube’s babysitting site until she tires herself out, then naps for another few hours at home. “Essentially now I’m getting five to six hours of work in every day.”
Now Jaye Johnson can feel even more confident about having reliable access to that supportive space. In December, The Cube’s co-founder and CEO, Tammira Lucas, announced she had reached an agreement with the company’s landlord to buy the building it’s been renting out in East Baltimore.
“We saw a need to focus on mom entrepreneurs and helping them to start businesses in low-income areas like Baltimore City,” Lucas says. “Most families in these low-income areas in Baltimore, the head of households are moms that are living below the poverty level.” By increasing their incomes, she says, the community can start addressing some of its other socio-economic issues, including high rates of crime.
The Cube grew out of Lucas’ work supporting other “mompreneurs” like herself in and around Baltimore. It started informally, as she was working on her own business designing and selling fashion accessories for infants and toddlers. She started that business to help pay for graduate school while keeping a flexible schedule that she could control — a big priority, since she was pregnant at the time.
But many of the mothers who were buying from Lucas also had questions about how she started her business and how she ran it. She was more than happy to share the knowledge. It was, after all, her field of study — Lucas has an MBA and a doctorate in business management. She had a first-hand understanding of why they had so many questions about entrepreneurship.
“I grew up in West Baltimore, so I didn’t see very much entrepreneurship around me,” Lucas says. “I wanted to impact my community and I wanted to own something. But [until graduate school] I wasn’t really sure on how to do so, because I really wasn’t introduced to those types of opportunities growing up.”
Lucas is part of the wave of the renewal of Black entrepreneurship that hearkens back to historical figures like Madame C.J. Walker. People of color, especially Black women, have been starting up new ventures at higher rates than their white or male counterparts for years at this point. But, while half of startups overall fail within five years, a staggering eight out of 10 Black-owned businesses fail within their first 18 months. Black woman-owned businesses – which make up just 37% of Black-owned businesses, per Pew – are often smaller, and often don’t last. With the added barrier of uneven access to capital for people of color, it’s hard to say how many potential Black-owned businesses never move beyond asking someone else a few questions about how they got their business started.
Those questions kept coming, and Lucas kept answering. Eventually she went into consulting for other mompreneurs. That grew into the Mom Entrepreneurs Academy, which eventually grew into the National Association of Mom Entrepreneurs. But Lucas felt there was more her burgeoning community of mompreneurs needed to feel like they no longer had to choose between starting and growing a business and starting or growing a family.
While offering all-day formal childcare would require hiring state-certified providers and cost thousands of dollars a year, babysitting on site was a tried-and-true model for bringing in busy urbanite parents. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)
That’s when she had her big idea: A designated babysitting area in a coworking space, where entrepreneurs could leave toddlers with paid staff to supervise them for a few hours. It was inspired in part by some of the local gyms that Lucas frequented, which offered babysitting services for members.
“I thought that that would be super cool if you could do the same for coworking,” Lucas says. While offering all-day formal childcare would require hiring state-certified providers and cost thousands of dollars a year, babysitting on site was a tried-and-true model for bringing in busy urbanite parents. “I called my sister with the idea originally and she believed in me, she put her money and her time into this business too and we decided that we were going to be partners.”
Lucas took out a $10,000 personal loan to invest in the new coworking space, for which they found an initial location just over the city line in Baltimore County. It was just three rooms, totaling 1,200 square feet, and it needed a ton of work when they first secured it. But once it opened in 2017, they found more demand than they expected.
“It was very old, it was very ugly, but we made the best out of it,” Lucas says. “Let’s say it was the ugly duckling that I turned into a beautiful swan. Every year, we would double our numbers from what we did the previous year.”
In 2019, a developer emailed Lucas with a proposition. She almost ignored it, assuming it was spam. The developer had converted a former East Baltimore nightclub on Harford Road into a coworking space on the first floor. The second floor was still vacant. Would The Cube, he asked, be interested in renting out the second floor?
The location came with a lot of perks. It’s on a main road going in and out of Baltimore, with lots of free parking that could serve Cube members and their visiting clients, and a local coffee shop just a couple doors down. Plus, it’s a stone’s throw from Morgan State University, one of Baltimore’s two historically Black colleges; Lucas actually graduated from the other, Coppin State.
“I was a little apprehensive…I wasn’t very sure on where I wanted to take the actual company,” Lucas says. “Every decision that I make, I go to God first before I make that decision. And you know, he gave me the go to just do it. So we occupied the top floor for about seven months, and the developers came back and said, ‘Hey, do you guys want to take over the entire building?’”
Lucas prayed again, and again got the go ahead to rent out the entire building — a total of 15,000 square feet.The babysitting and play space occupies a large second-floor room. Lucas’ own grandmother is one of the on-staff playroom associates, and she’s not the only grandmother who has been on the payroll. Prior to the pandemic, Lucas was working on a partnership with the City of Baltimore to set up The Cube as part of the city’s job placement program for senior citizens. She still holds out hope for that partnership.
“When I was thinking of this model, my grandmother babysat my daughter, and I had a lot of friends who would say they wished they had my grandmother’” Lucas says. Staffing her business with grandparents seemed an obvious choice: “Who wouldn’t want a grandmother to watch their child? They’re seasoned, they know what to do, and studies show if you keep grandparents active, especially with babies and kids, it helps them to stay around a little bit longer.”
Right across from the babysitting area is the onsite salon. Known as “Cide Hustle,” it’s run by Cube member Ciera Gaskins (whose childrens’ names also all begin with “C”). Gaskins first met Lucas when she became her preferred nail technician years ago right after Gaskins graduated from high school. She was a pre-med student working her way through school with a back office job at Johns Hopkins Hospital when the pandemic stopped work temporarily.
To get by, she started braiding her friends’ hair at her home. Soon she found she was making as much in one day braiding hair as she did from a full two-weeks’ paycheck at the hospital. So she quit the hospital job, started renting a chair at a salon – and then started losing clients.
“A lot of my clients weren’t getting the privacy that they enjoyed at my home,” Gaskins says. “It was just not the feel they came to enjoy, so I scaled back.” Eventually Gaskins even stopped braiding hair at home. But she’d been to some of The Cube’s mompreneur workshops, and Lucas found out Gaskins was on the verge of folding her business to return to the 9-5 life. So Lucas invited Gaskins to check out a second floor space that would be perfect for her — offering the peace and privacy her clientele had come to expect, while also providing her with babysitting services. Gaskins doesn’t need it every day, as she does have access to daycare she can afford, but her daycare site closes along with the local school system.
“Otherwise I would have to scramble,” Gaskins says. “Here I just go on to The Cube’s app, see if somebody is available, pay for it with my credit card that’s already on file because I’m a member and just drop the kids off, and they’re literally right across the hall from me.”
As she continues building up her clientele, Gaskins is already thinking ahead to eventually opening up her own brick and mortar location, where she also hopes to bring in high schoolers like she was to learn the ropes, learn the business and obtain the training and certifications they need for the profession. She plans to eventually have enough income from that business to pay for medical school.
“The Cube is a great community because you meet so many different women from so many different aspects of life and all we want to do is see each other grow,” Gaskins says. “It’s a really great space to be in to just learn about business behind the business, creating that legacy for you and your family.”
Legacy is also very much on Lucas’ mind. After many entreaties from mompreneurs around the country, she hopes to open a second location of The Cube in Atlanta later this year.
She and her sister, TeKesha Jamison, ultimately envision passing ownership of The Cube to their daughters, while retaining ownership of the properties that house locations of The Cube across the country. That way, even if someday their daughters decide to sell the business – or if time brings universal free childcare – they’ll be able to leverage the properties for other uses. Lucas is also exploring ways to sell shares of ownership in the properties to community members around each location.
But Lucas is in no hurry. She’s learned from coworking space debacles, like WeWork’s epic fall from grace, that growing too fast can take this kind of business away from the community-building mission that makes it work.
“Slow and steady always wins the race,” Lucas says. “We’re not building a business to look good on social media, but we’re building a business to impact communities and to build generational wealth within our family as well.”
This story has been updated to correct the member of Lucas’ family who served as the babysitter at The Cube.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter.
Oscar is Next City's senior economic justice correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.