What do we talk about when we talk about innovation in Oklahoma: Emerging technologies? Fostering entrepreneurship? Drawing investors? The answer is "yes" to all, and Tommy Yi has been talking about innovation in our state for many years. His co-founding of StarSpace46 is just the latest development in his years-long mission to make Oklahoma one of the best places for new business in the U.S.
More than a decade ago, Yi and several of his colleagues launched an event called OpenBeta. Based on the concept of gathering innovative minds to talk about what they've learned and where they are headed, OpenBeta connected entrepreneurs in OKC before most people had even heard of TED Talks.
The first OpenBeta event was simple and straight-forward. "We wanted to invite anyone and everyone who was doing cool stuff, in tech, or the creative space, or the community space, to tell their story in a PechaKucha style talk," Yi explained. "At the first one, we had a guy named Noah Everett present this product called TwitPic. The TwitPic app came when Twitter was just text--you couldn't share pictures on the native platform--but you could now with TwitPic."
"So it was groundbreaking. This is before Instagram or any of the photo-sharing services we know today. So at the time, it seemed like everyone in the world was using TwitPic," Yi remembered. "What blew people's minds was when he revealed that he was this dude from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and he built it with two of his buds here in Oklahoma City. Then it became an a-ha moment for everyone. ‘If this guy can do it, then I can do it, without ever leaving Oklahoma.’"
The scope of Yi's career extends far beyond the universe of co-working. He's widely recognized for his work in digital transformations, design strategy, and product innovation. Yi spent more than a decade honing his business acumen in areas such as product strategy, user experience, interaction design, and corporate innovation. His knowledge in the area of customer experience is grounded in design research, service design, and fractional executive consulting.
Yi's digital transformations are wide-ranging. His resume is peppered with several globally recognized brands, such as Expedia, Capital One, Fiserv, Pizza Hut, and many more. Yi was also part of an enterprise design and software development company called projekt202, which grew from 1 to 5 cities and $55 million in revenue in just seven years.
Currently, Tommy Yi is the President and co-founder of StarSpace46. In 2008, after the success of OpenBeta, he co-founded the first co-working space in the state of Oklahoma. He called it the Oklahoma City CoWorking Collective, also known as okcCoCo. Located near NW 7th and Hudson, long before the boom of the Midtown District, okcCoCo offered a space for entrepreneurs to come and work without a significant investment in office space. That project evolved into another co-working enterprise called The 404.
While The 404 did find success, Yi knew that something was missing. "There was a growing need and urgency to have a single hub for entrepreneurship and technology — to bring back what okcCoCo provided when it existed. Entrepreneurs, investors, and technologists felt that things were becoming too segmented and siloed in OKC and wanted a single place to point to for community, resources, and startups-- an entrepreneurship ecosystem."
"We felt like the timing was right to do things bigger and better. With all of the momentum created by MAPS, development in the Downtown/Midtown area, and the push for more diversity in OKC's economic growth, StarSpace46 was a much-needed answer."
With all of the growth surrounding Yi's co-working initiatives, OpenBeta went on hiatus but ultimately came back in the form of CreativeBeta in 2017. "We hosted it at the Jones Assembly, in partnership with Creative Oklahoma. We wanted to be very intentional about creating collisions within the event itself--spark these intentional disruptions and distractions within the event. People talked about all sorts of things, like innovation and creativity in the workplace to the struggles with brick and mortar retail businesses."
"One speaker gave a talk about leaving the banking industry because of racism. He gave examples about how the banking world wouldn't give loans to people from certain parts of Oklahoma City, based on the racial demographics of that area. It was a really uncomfortable talk, even calling out people in the church community. But then, after a couple of talks, we required all 200 people in the audience to go into these breakout sessions to talk about what we'd all just heard on stage."
One critical component of the StarSpace46 business model is partnerships with established local companies. "It would be safe to say that StarSpace46 may not have been successful without the support of Cox Business Services," Yi explained. "At the very least, our growth and impact would have been much slower. We needed to have the support of local companies and industry that valued our mission. Cox's help early on as a partner not only validated our purpose but also signaled a distinct difference than predecessors to StarSpace that came before it. Previously, co-working had never been truly supported or embraced in the city. To have a major player like Cox invest showed their support for the entrepreneurship and tech community. It also indicates that OKC is ready to be a mature and healthy ecosystem and economic growth through diversity away from just energy and real estate.
StarSpace46 has always been about impact. The co-founders and board serve in many non-profit organizations and serve on the board of organizations such as Creative Oklahoma, Techlahoma Foundation, Oklahoma City Girls Art School, Fight for the Forgotten, and Oklahoma Entrepreneurship Mentor Program to name a few.
While SS46 has achieved many of the initial goals, with each new success, Yi and the other co-founders aim to set the bar even higher. They believe that to guide Oklahoma in the best direction for the future, StarSpace46 must impact three pillars of the community: commerce, culture, and education.
StarSpace46 and sister organization, Techlahoma, are well known within tech circles, but Yi has a vision of expanding into other sectors more deeply. "We can now put energy towards non-tech community efforts. More entrepreneurial, and civic-minded initiatives," Yi lamented. "I look forward to taking an active role in city politics because we have a point of view about how we think the city can be better. The job now is to figure out how to take the positive impacts of StarSpace46 and Techlahoma and do something bigger and better than ever before."
"We believe attracting and retaining young talent is paramount to OKC's future and growth as a top destination and city to live in. We want more young people to live here, start businesses here, have families here, and thus will become voters, influencers, and change agents who will help transform this city and state. We have the luxury to learn from other cities and take the lessons learned to grow the city the right way."