After years of being a stay-at-home mom, Kim Lee re-entered the workforce and soon learned about the concept of coworking. She quickly realized that Birmingham-area entrepreneurs, small business owners and creative freelancers needed a coworking space, a place where they could grow their businesses by working and collaborating with others. Thus, the idea for Forge was born. We are excited to welcome this week’s FACE of Birmingham, Forge CEO and Founder Kim Lee.
Once you saw the need for a professional coworking space in Birmingham, what made you decide to be the person to build it?
It really is the perfect blend of my background. My undergrad is in business, and I have a master’s in counseling. After I got my master’s, I worked in business operations and development for a service industry company, and that company was very hospitality centered, which really gave me the love of serving people well, treating people well, doing everything that you do with excellence. This concept of coworking is the perfect blend of what I love. I love people, I love hospitality as a business, and I love the idea of creating and growing jobs in Birmingham.
What are some things you do to go above and beyond when serving Forge members?
At Forge, we are not just offering space to our members. Anyone can find somewhere to sit down and work at their computer. Our desire is to serve our members, offering them a community. With our community comes so many benefits — new friends, new networks, creative minds to help you think about problems and solutions in a different way and even new business. We have had several members collaborate and work on new ideas together.
We bring in community experts to speak on specific topics that will bring value to our members and really all entrepreneurs and small business owners. This education we open up to people outside of our Forge community. We see this as an opportunity to serve not just our members, but all entrepreneurs and small business owners in the Birmingham community.
We also foster community through hospitality to our members. We try to plan events that will bring our members together through member lunches, happy hours and, of course, we love celebrating all the fun holidays like National Donut Day!
We desire to make Forge a place where our members know that everything will be taken care of for them. When they come in they can get straight to work. We do not want them to have the distractions that can come with running your own office. We also want Forge to be a place that they are proud to bring their clients!
Why did you think The Pizitz building would be a good place for Forge?
After a year and a half of places falling through, this became available, and it’s the perfect place. It’s a building where in the past, when it was a department store, it brought people from all over Birmingham together, and now it’s doing that again. The Pizitz building is bringing people in from all walks of life, and now we’re able to do that with businesses, too. We have a landscape architect, a restaurant delivery company, marketers, people in digital advertising, software developers, website developers, graphic designers, a filmmaker, several consultants, a residential management company, writers, direct sales people and an architectural firm. We’ve got people working in here who would have never been working together otherwise.
What’s been the most challenging thing about building Forge?
Because it’s a new concept for Birmingham, we are doing a lot of educating people on what coworking really is. It’s been a challenge to figure out the best way to get our message out and let people know the true benefits. The people who become members are people who don’t have this line item in their budget. They are people who are working at home, but really they’re isolating themselves from other people, other ideas, collaboration with other people.
What’s been the most rewarding part of building Forge?
People walk in and they’re excited to come to work. Then when you see members become friends and actually start working on projects together or start getting ideas from each other — that’s really exciting. And people who are starting businesses who would never be able to afford an office have an opportunity to start somewhere where they are surrounded by people and in a professional place that makes them look like they’re really doing it.
Why do you think Birmingham is a good city for entrepreneurs, and what could make it an even better place for small business owners?
I feel like there is really a rise in the entrepreneurial spirit and so people are really coming together and wanting other people to succeed. There is a lot of help through Create Birmingham and through REV Birmingham and through Innovation Depot as well as Forge. There’s a lot going on to help support small business owners and help people start their businesses.
But to have a brick-and-mortar store is pretty difficult in Birmingham. Maybe that’s just in general, and I don’t know the solution, but there have to be more creative ways to help people get started. It’s really expensive to start a brick-and-mortar business. There are so many people who have ideas, but have no financial means to start it.
Do you have any advice for women, particularly moms, who want to become entrepreneurs?
The benefits and the joy of starting your own business far outweigh always wondering “what if.” For me, I am a mom of three, and I was a stay-at-home mom for a long time, so it’s been a huge lifestyle change, but it’s been totally worth it. I have grown so much, and my kids have grown so much. They have learned things about why we work hard and why we save money. They know that if you want something, you have to work hard to get it. And it’s not that they didn’t know that before, but they can see it through the business.
Life looks different for them, too, because I’m not at home as much, but they are so excited for me and what I’m building here. And my husband was on board. This definitely was not a solo decision, and this wasn’t a decision I took lightly. It’s a big risk all around. And I don’t think “mom guilt” ever goes away, regardless of how much your spouse encourages you not to feel guilty. But it’s definitely been very rewarding for our family. When my kids were little, I don’t think I ever would have imagined I could have done this. You’re capable of handling more than you think.
What do you like to do for fun when you’re not working?
Coyote Miniature Golf at the Shops of Grand River — our kids love to do that.
We like to cook as a family, so if we do have free time, we mostly like to spend it at home.
Do you have any personality quirks people would find surprising?
I’m really particular about the way that a cereal box is opened. It almost does me in when the top of the box is ripped or when the bag is ripped.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Each heartache, each struggle, everything that you go through is like a perfectly wrapped present from God with a bow on top that is the perfect gift for you at that moment. It may seem like it is really hard and you’re not going to make it through, but it is exactly what the Lord knows that you need at this moment.
Besides faith and family, name three things you can’t live without.
In this order: Early morning exercise (on weekdays), coffee (with all the fixings) and Oribe dry texturizing spray.
Thank you, Kim! To learn more about Forge, visit workatforge.com.
And thank you, Eric & Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography, for these stunning photos.