By Emily Denny
As a freelancer and a master’s degree student at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (M.C.P.), Christelle Rohaut found coffee shops too crowded, co-working spaces too expensive, and her own home too isolating. In 2016, on her daily commute home, she saw rows of overpacked coffee shops.
“I also found it incredibly ironic that my living room was empty all day long,” said Rohaut.
That’s when she had her “ah-ha” moment. Rohaut wondered if there might be an opportunity to transform underutilized residencies like her apartment during the day into productive spaces for freelancers — to create a kind of “Airbnb for coworking spaces.” That spark led to Codi, an online platform that connects freelancers sick of coffee shops and expensive coworking spaces with owners and renters looking for additional income to help with housing affordability and building connections within their local community. (Image: Get the Codi app and walk to work at codiwork.com!)
“Our goal is to bring back what you need to feel productive in your work, next to where you live,” added Rohaut to underscore what differentiates Codi from all other co-working spaces. She also stressed that Codi addresses the rising housing costs while reducing traffic and pollution. “It’s a model that is tailored toward addressing the main challenges facing the workforce in most U.S.cities”. This is especially distressing in the especially in the Bay Area, where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $3,750 according to Zumper.
Boosted by F7, a seed investment fund comprised of seven female leaders who met during their tenure at Facebook, Rohaut and her team of seven are launching Codi across the Bay Area later this month.
Rohaut credits much of her early success to the opportunities and resources she was able to access at UC Berkeley in honing her entrepreneurial skills. In 2017, she took the Social Innovator On-Ramp, a Blum Center course that helps students take an idea and turn it into a viable project. The same year, she entered Codi into the Big Ideas Contest, a social innovation competition that since 2006 has helped 6,300 students go on to win over $2.6 million for their projects. Much to her surprise and delight, Codi took first prize in Big Ideas’ Connected Communities category for the 2017-2018 contest season.
When asked how other Berkeley students can become successful entrepreneurs, Rohaut’s responded without missing a beat, “Do Big Ideas,” because the contest provided her with the support and confidence she needed to get Codi off the ground. It also gave her experience pitching in front of large crowds and connected her with an invaluable mentor, Steven Horowitz, a startup advisor who is the founder and principal of the Ovidian Group, an intellectual property business advisory firm in Berkeley. (Image: Christelle Rohaut, 2nd from left, with the Codi team.)
“There were so many great projects submitted. Winning the top prize was a great validation of our mission, and being able to work with a mentor like Steven is an amazing opportunity,” added Rohaut.
“I bought the pitch: there’s a problem, there’s a solution, and I thought. Let’s go with it,” remembered Horowitz of the first time he heard Rohaut pitch Codi. “There’s something about Christelle’s intelligence and her earnestness that communicates a kind of can-do and will-do attitude,” said Steven. “She’s got that drive.”
Horowitz said he also was intrigued by Codi because of its circular economy model, connecting freelance workers and hosts with local economies. He believes the company could engender many indirect benefits to cities, local economies, and freelance workers.
Codi is entering a crowded sharing economy market. Yet as opposed to other co-working companies, it focuses on location, conveniently building coworking networks within neighborhoods, rather than downtown metropolitan areas.
“Our specialty is that we connect home-based workspaces during the day with workers in their neighborhood,” said Rohaut, who added that her favorite part of Codi is when freelancers working for the first time in the same home organically go out for lunch together. Not only is this important to bringing traffic to a neighborhood’s local economy, she explained; it also creates a sense of community among neighbors, something she feels her generation is losing rapidly.
Codi’s seed funding from F7 came not only because Rohaut is one of the few female founders in the Bay Area, but because her startup’s central mission is to create a positive social impact. Rohaut said she often finds herself as the only woman in the room during large corporate meetings. However, due to F7’s investment, she said, “It feels great to be part of something that encourages women to go ahead and follow their dreams, even if that space is dominated mostly by men.”
Rohaut’s startup leverages the idiosyncrasies of the San Francisco Bay Area real estate market, yet she believes her idea will work very well in most major US cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and New York.
“We are very excited to have launched our app,” she said. “And we have a long waitlist — hundreds of people have already signed up in the Bay Area. Let the Codi revolution begin!”