Hacker Lab co-founder and CEO Gina Lujan has been focused on entrepreneurship for over two decades. Hacker Lab’s 10,500-square-foot space in midtown Sacramento had become a hub of innovation for numerous creators and doers in the Sacramento Region, from artists to engineers. The site has been so successful it has opened a second site in Rocklin. We sat down with her recently to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the hacker innovation space.
ART MAKERS Gina Lujan says that there wasn’t as much female representation when Hacker Lab started as there is today. To create an environment in which women felt comfortable, Hacker Lab partnered with the Arts and Business Council (now Blue Line Arts). They gave the ABC free membership for one year. The partnership helped incorporate a more artistic culture into the space. Lujan says it also introduced female artists “who are creators and innovators and have a lot to bring to our table,” to the midtown maker space.
Some people might not be familiar with the Hacker Lab concept, but there are similar workspaces all over the world, correct?
The term ‘hacker’ is an MIT term and, to put it in the simplest terms, it means to find a creative solution to a problem. The methodology behind hackerspaces is basically to solve problems in a very creative way using minimalist methods, so that’s our concept here. Most people who are in this space are pretty minimalist, highly intelligent and here to solve problems. It’s very different from a traditional coworking space.
I’m sure it’s varies, but who is the typical person that uses this space?
It’s changed, because before it used to be the 20-something with the backpack and Converse [sneakers], the typical Bay Area startup person stereotype. But we’re very diverse. I’m starting to see, across the board, most hackerspaces being a very ‘come-all’ type of environment. These types of spaces embrace pretty much everyone; the more unique and creative you are, the better. So here we do have a lot of 20-somethings, a lot of Converse and a lot of backpacks, but we also have people from their 40s to their 60s working out of here. We have tons of women, tons of men, people from all racial demographics. I really can’t say there’s one specific type of person that’s here anymore.
Are these generally people working in tech, or is there a variety of things being worked on?
It’s people working on innovation. It’s definitely not just tech. When we first started, we were really focused on tech, which is still one of our main focuses. But what stems from that is all different kinds of innovation. We have craft makers here, welders, woodworkers, jewelers. We have people who create signs, who make clothing. You name it, it’s here.
You have several partnerships of note, including one with Sierra College. What is your goal with that partnership?
What they’re trying to do is find a way to truly innovate education. Right now we’re talking to teachers, students and staff to see how that’s going to happen. We don’t know yet, but we’re really working on it. We’re doing a regional incubator that [Hacker Lab co-founder] Eric Ullrich is running. He’s developed a magnificent program called StartUp Hustle that was sponsored by Sierra College and the city of Rocklin. That’s really harnessing those resources that come from the college and the city, local mentors and our space, and we’re going to start some awesome companies out of that. That’s innovation, and that’s utilizing the school system to do that.
People in government often talk about innovation, but technology moves much faster than most lawmakers and government officials are able to handle. Do you have the sense they actually get what you are trying do with a concept like this?
I think they do. I think the government is actually starting to see that these are really important spaces. There’s been so much push from the White House down about the importance of innovation. The White House had a Google Hangout on makerspaces, and libraries are becoming makerspaces. So I think people are getting it — and they want it. They’re just trying to figure out how to do it. These types of spaces are a little different because, I think if government or cities run them, they don’t have that same sense of chaos that leads to creativity. That’s why they come to us.
Are there other communities that you are looking at? What are the limitations of trying to expand to all the places you’d like to be?
Since the very beginning, Eric and I and Charles Blas, our other co-founder, have always talked about how we can make it so that people can take what they learn here into the real world. And then Sierra College came into the picture. We’re still trying to fully figure it out, but I think this college model is how we’re going to do it. This is the door opening for us. We really want to move into partnering with academic institutions, and we have several conversations going on right now. Our focus is California but we have had invitations out of state. We’re currently looking at Livermore and how to make that happen. Hopefully a presence in the Bay Area would be good. We’ve talked about Davis and have been trying to get there for the last couple of years, we just haven’t found the right model for us. I do know that we’re going to continue growing. I really believe that within the next year or so we’ll be announcing another partnership with another college.
Is there also potential to do this with K through 12?
Yes, we’ve also been looking there. We started another nonprofit, Operation Innovate, which has done two hackathons called Code for Hood. We did one in Del Paso Heights and one in West Sacramento, which were great successes. They were basically focused on youths 12 to 17. Our goal is to eventually find a space that is just for K through 12, where we focus on creating a pipeline of kids that can go into the workforce.
Did you get a lot of girls?
We did. Twenty-six percent were girls, which is actually really good.
What about things like being mobile?
We are just getting ready to do an Indiegogo [crowdfunding] drive for Operation Innovate. We’re trying to raise $50,000 so we can have a mobile van. Our first initiative is to focus on disadvantaged and at-risk youth and build that pipeline. What we’re finding with that demographic is that the neighborhoods where we want to host hackathons don’t have the resources we need to actually teach. So we’re going to try to raise the money to buy a van and 3D printers. We have 60 laptops, but we need about another 90. We need software, soldering stations, things like that. And we’re basically going to be a mobile classroom with tables and chairs, so if we wanted to pull up at a park in Del Paso Heights and just throw some tables and chairs out there and teach STEM, we could.
What’s the bottom-line benefit of spaces like yours to communities like this one?
Economic development starts with entrepreneurship. The people that come here create businesses and create jobs. If we could create more entrepreneurs and support them so they’re successful, then we have true economic development.