- Co.co.haus, a coworking space in Puerto Rico, had been open five months when Hurricane Maria hit.
- Founder Mariangie Rosas discusses how her space became a refuge and a place for connection and support.
- Rosas reflects on the recovery of her space and the island, and San Juan’s emerging entrepreneurial scene.
Co.co.haus had been open five months when Hurricane Maria hit. After the hurricane, the coworking space in San Juan, Puerto Rico quickly became a hub for activity, community and work.
Allwork.Space spoke with co.co.haus founder and CEO Mariangie Rosas about the growing San Juan entrepreneurial scene, how the hurricane affected her space and extended community, and what she’d like to see from the Puerto Rico coworking ecosystem. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Allwork.space: You grew up in Puerto Rico, but had been living in New York when you decided to return. What prompted your decision to move back to the island?
Mariangie Rosas: In 2015 I moved to Puerto Rico because there was a business opportunity that wasn’t necessarily going to be a full-time job, but was just enough that it made sense for me to come home. At the time, I had an idea to develop a food app. I wanted to enter the startup world and there was a big accelerator program starting in Puerto Rico and the entrepreneurship scene was — for the first time, I think — developing.
Before that, the norm was to go to college and, even if you go to one of the amazing universities here, you would still try to find a secure job with a corporation. Up until the late-90s or 2000s, that was still the norm.
When I moved back, I saw all these young professionals starting small companies and projects, and changing industries. I realized I could work on the project I had here. But, I also realized that there were almost no coworking spaces. There was just one in Old San Juan. It was started for the tourists in San Juan, but not that much for the local community. It’s hard to get to, parking is a mess, it’s not an easy commute.
The reason I moved back was because we bought property in the center of downtown San Juan. I thought that there had to be a coworking space right there. It’s the center of the city, it’s walking distance from everywhere, there are a lot of restaurants and cafes, there’s underground parking for the building, it just made sense.
I realized, when I started doing research afterwards, that you’re supposed to build the community first. I did it the other way around. But the need was so great that I started getting business right away. The first few months I was a little scared because people didn’t know what coworking was. Once we started educating them, they started getting it and trying it, and we got booked pretty quickly.
So you moved back to the island in 2015 and opened the space right away?
I opened the space in April 2017. I came up with the idea in December 2016. After a year and a half working at home on my own, I thought there had to be a better way. I was getting nowhere.
When I decided to start a space, I knew I’d meet people in the industry. I knew I needed a web developer and an app developer. I was trying to build the space so I could create my own little company.
You saw that there was a local need, you saw entrepreneurial projects and independent workers. How did you go about introducing coworking to people who didn’t know what it was?
Our first two members arrived on the first day we opened. One was moving from that space in Old San Juan because she lived in the suburbs and her commute was already long, so she was looking for a space. She signed with us a month before we opened.
Our first members were people who already knew about coworking. After that, we started educating people. Some people would show up and want a private office for a day so we explained how that model didn’t work for us, that we had month-to-month memberships, that they could get a day pass, but not a private office.
Five months after we opened, Hurricane Maria hit. Then, everyone needed a space that had internet and a generator, and that’s what we had. Our internet never failed and our generator is 24/7.
After Maria hit, what was it like as people started to recover and get back to their work and life?
The hurricane hit Wednesday morning. It devastated the entire island, as everyone knows. I was able to finally leave my house on Thursday. Wednesday it was impossible because the entire neighborhood was flooded. I didn’t want to drive in those waters because you didn’t know how deep it was.
Thursday, I was able to leave and drive all the way to the coworking space. My building had a generator, but the generator got flooded in 8 feet of water.
I’m diabetic and, in my apartment building, the common area is connected to a generator and that’s where everyone puts their medication in an emergency. That generator wasn’t working. I had ice, so I knew my insulin was fine for a couple of days if I didn’t open the fridge. But I knew I needed to find a fridge. The coworking space had a fridge with a generator, so that was my first thought — and also to check on my business.
It was surreal. You had to zigzag through trees, you had to sometimes go in the opposite direction because you just couldn’t continue, you had to go in the other lane. When I got there, there was water damage everywhere. Some offices got completely destroyed but our space only had partial damage from the offices above that had water trickle down from the drainage pipes. But everything was still manageable. We just cleaned it up. The power was on and the internet was running.
Were other people out at that time?
No one was out. The streets were empty. I live very close to the coworking space, so I was able to get around. But there were so many fallen trees that people couldn’t really move for days or weeks. We knew we needed to get some food because we realized very quickly that this was way worse than anyone had anticipated.
My manager and I went back to the space and hung out. A couple of neighbors showed up and we offered them internet and coffee. There was glass all over the lobby because there was glass from other parts of the building that had broken. The lobby had glass until Monday of the next week.
None of the building workers could come back to work for five days after the hurricane because they live further away from the city where it was just impossible to get around. A week and a half after the hurricane, I needed to get gas. I spent an hour and twenty minutes and I was lucky. People were doing three, four, six hour lines for gas.
On Friday, I got to the space really early. I still had no idea about my family, which is on the west coast. There was no connection from Tuesday night when the lines were cut off. The west coast wasn’t in the worst condition, so I wasn’t freaking out. I knew everyone was probably ok, but there was no communication. Outside of San Juan, no one had service. No internet and no phone. Zero. Within San Juan, it was about half the population.
From the footage I’ve seen, I’m amazed anyone had power, let alone internet.
As far as I know, even the biggest companies lost service for at least two days. Our provider is a small company. I have no idea why ours remained. It’s fiber, so it’s underground, but even other big companies that have fiber were down for a couple of days.
This is a long recovery for the island that is still very much going on. What role has coworking and co.co.haus played in getting people back on their feet?
Right after Maria, we got a lot of people who wanted to volunteer, and companies working on relief who couldn’t work from their offices. People just found us somehow. They showed up and knew we had internet. They needed to start working on their projects.
I didn’t charge any of the new people until October 1, so we had 10 days of free coworking. We got full overnight, basically. People were also trying to book flights out. The accelerator program had a lot of foreigners who no longer had a place to stay. Somehow, before they closed the airports, some flights were leaving.
The first day, no one was really working, but our space became a place to regroup, to connect, to help, to gather volunteers. The mom of one of the employees from the accelerator program showed up with a tiny gas stove and made rice and sausages for everyone. People were sometimes just looking at each other. There were a lot of people just trying to connect with the people they know.
The internet service wasn’t great, but we could use Whatsapp and Facebook to call. I called my brother through Facebook and we were able to chat on that Friday or Saturday.
Community is an important part of coworking. It’s the thing that holds it all together. How has the hurricane and the ongoing recovery impacted or shaped your community?
Our private offices and, for the most part the entire space, has been 80-90 percent booked since the hurricane. At first, we had people who were just temporary until their offices got back up and running. But six months after the hurricane, we still had those temporary people. Now, it’s very much the local entrepreneurs.
We have a lot of tax incentives, so a ton of Americans are now moving back to the island. Other spaces are targeting them because those people are looking for coworking spaces from the get-go.
But a lot of those people like us because we have the local thing. They find a lot of Americans in the other spaces and they want to get to know more of the local people. Ours has been known for the local entrepreneurs. We have project managers, we have startups, we have a lot of graphic designers, marketing agencies, copywriters, a ton of freelancers, we have a global entrepreneurial nonprofit called Endeavor, we have Uber Eats, so we also have big companies.
In some spaces, that isn’t good for everyone, but for us it works. This is all so new that people love the diversity. One of our graphic designer members calls it the best focus group she’s ever had. She walks out of her office, asks the opinion of three people, and gets the perspective of a lawyer, a programmer and an accountant. She said she could never do that in an agency.
What’s the future of coworking in Puerto Rico? What do you see and what would you like to see?
A ton of spaces are opening. We were the first to open in Santurce. Now there are five, and six or seven opening in the next year or two. We’re finally now seeing coworking spaces on other parts of the island. People are now really noticing the industry. I want to see it grow even more. There’s a lot of collaboration for most of them, and that’s really good.
Some are really into the tech scene. There’s one that’s connected with Microsoft and they’re doing a lot of IoT and robotics projects. They’re working with high school students and college students, providing free programs because they’re getting sponsored by IBM and Microsoft and other companies.
My hope for all of this is to incentivize all these brilliant, brilliant minds we have here to stay — to stop the brain drain. For the last 15 or 20 years, people have been leaving — including myself. I left thinking that I would never come back because that was just the mentality back then.
When I left in the early-2000s, Puerto Rico was a paradise, but the economic turmoil we’ve been having for the last 15 years has created a brain drain. People who want to start businesses leave because they don’t have the support, or the opportunity to try a second time if you fail. But now we’re seeing a lot of Puerto Ricans moving back, or at least looking at the potential of moving back. With coworking, you can try that out, without having to take a full-time lease.
There’s space for hundreds more to open throughout the island. We’re just getting started. If we can facilitate these young entrepreneurs to stay, and take the risk of becoming an entrepreneur instead of just getting jobs someplace else, we can start improving the local economy.