New Leaf Initiative: Collaboration, Community, Connection and Co-Working

Written by Staff Writer

June 22, 2021

When you walk in, you feel as though you’ve just been transported. The space is open, colorful and filled with light from tall windows, recycled barn wood and green leafy plants. Desks — some with monitors and computers — tables and seating areas are scattered throughout the space. 

In 2008, childhood friends Spud Marshall and Eric Sauder graduated together from Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College with degrees in mechanical engineering. Two years later, after finishing graduate school, they returned to State College to launch something new. They wanted to address what they saw as an unmet need in Happy Valley: a collaborative community space where social innovators, entrepreneurs, students and local leaders could work together to create change.  

Armed with a vision, the two friends joined forces with Christian Baum, another childhood friend and an alumnus of Maryland Institute College of Design, to establish New Leaf Initiative. 

“Since Eric and I spent our college years here, we felt the town lacked a place for people to come together to reimagine the future,” said Marshall. “We wanted to create a space where people could dream together, innovate together, and create a new future for our town together.” 

Most of all, said current executive director Abby Gaffron, the founders “wanted to change the culture and perception of what was possible for the community.” 

In the beginning: Creating funky spaces and positive change 

The nonprofit organization started as a “fun, funky community space,” said Gaffron. The central piece of furnishing was a table fashioned from a dry-erase whiteboard in the shape of a lightbulb, on which people could write their thoughts, hopes and visions for the community. That lightbulb, a symbol of new ideas, became the primary image around which the organization’s logo and brand are centered. 

“The early days of New Leaf were about exploring ways to create positive social change in our community,” said Gaffron. “The founders focused on what was needed or missing in our local culture. One of our greatest successes as an organization has been our ability to adapt and grow with our community and meet needs as they arise. 

“We wanted to create a space where people could dream together, innovate together, and create a new future for our town together.”

“We sparked so many projects, ideas and new organizations just by creating the conversations in the beginning: LaunchBox, the co.space3 Dots Downtown, the Rivet. We became a connection point for so many things. Co-working was a natural progression for a collaborative space and, ultimately, it’s where we hit our stride,” Gaffron continued. 

The concept of co-working provides an arrangement where remote workers, freelancers, companies and solopreneurs can share office space and equipment, utilities, and certain professional services, allowing for greater convenience and cost savings. Members of New Leaf Initiative also have access to a creative, collaborative network of like-minded professionals and helpful resources. 

2014 and beyond: Building relationships through community 

In 2014, the organization moved to its current home. A tiered monthly co-working membership structure offers access to benefits ranging from use of conference rooms and communal spaces ($50 per month) to a “fully loaded” dedicated workspace five days a week ($329 per month) that includes a business mailing address, printing/copying services, video and call booths and access to New Leaf’s international network of co-working hubs. And for less than $20, anyone who temporarily needs a focused, distraction-free place to work can purchase a day pass that includes fast, secure fiber-optic WiFi connectivity, locally produced coffee and tea, and use of a kitchenette. 

But it’s really not about the space as much as the benefits the New Leaf community creates: meaningful conversations and the kind of interaction that fosters supportive relationships and partnerships. This supportive community inspired communications consultant Dana Ray to take the leap from teaching and freelance writing to starting her own marketing business. 

“I saw people doing creative, empathetic work in ways I’d never imagined and wondered what it would take to build that life for myself,” Ray wrote in a 2018 column for State College Magazine

New Leaf also partners with other community organizations — the Penn State Small Business Development CenterEmpowered Women’s Experience and Central PA SCORE, to name a few — to offer workshops and other programming. In 2014, New Leaf began hosting a weekly “community coffee” networking event that is open to all. The coffee meet-ups continued until the COVID-19 pandemic forced them into hiatus, but the nonprofit hopes to start them again soon. 

“More than 10 years later, we’re still serving the community. We made it through a pandemic and although in some ways our focus has shifted and evolved, we remain committed to our original ideals of community collaboration and connection in Happy Valley.”

One regular community coffee attendee, Eric Zimmett, credits this event and becoming a member of the New Leaf community for giving him the courage and confidence to quit his job and start his own company. 

“New Leaf provided me with space and a professional environment for my business to thrive,” said Zimmett, a social marketing consultant, podcaster and principal at Braden Social Media, LLC, an agency that focuses on branding and strategy for the local food and drink industry. “I don’t know what I would have done without this space and the friends I’ve made along the way.” 

Stories like these are the best testament to the seeds New Leaf has planted over the past 10 years, said Gaffron. 

“The founders were interested in creating a community of changemakers, but ultimately New Leaf became the changemaker,” she said. “More than 10 years later, we’re still serving the community. We made it through a pandemic and although in some ways our focus has shifted and evolved, we remain committed to our original ideals of community collaboration and connection in Happy Valley. Most important, we are a welcoming space for all.” 

To learn more about co-working at New Leaf Initiative, visit newleafinitiative.org or email connect@newleafinitiative.org. 

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