MERGE connects creative people, entrepreneurs over coffee

Open Coffee and 1 Million Cups serve as a workshop and networking event on Wednesdays at 8 a.m.



Philip Runia, Arts Reporter

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, businessmen and -women found their way past the tasteful furniture and décor to the free coffee bar in MERGE on the morning of March 6. After a cup of java, caffeine levels and conversations sparked. Inspired by 1 Million Cups, a national event developed by the Kauffman Foundation, Open Coffee follows the same principle of collaborating ideas from creative minds.

MERGE, 136 S. Dubuque St., stands as a hub for creative and entrepreneurial development downtown and works in accordance with the Iowa City Development Group. Innovators are invited by MERGE to join a cowork space that appeals to all manner of professionals.

With open desk and lounge space upstairs and 20 to 30 private offices downstairs, members are welcome to work privately or collaboratively at their leisure. Memberships are organized online, with fees organized by times and frequency of member occupancy.

MERGE hosts a variety of events, one of the most popular being Wednesday’s Open Coffee. Over coffee from Bread Garden Market, attendees network until around 9 a.m. to exchange and build on business pitches.

“Your network is your net worth,” Andre’ Wright, fashion designer, network connector, and host of 1 Million Cups, said.

While networking, creatives shared pitches and philosophies about entrepreneurship with each other. Jay Cooper, a serial entrepreneur, web designer, and developer works from home usually, but he said he enjoys heading to MERGE on Wednesdays. Cooper finds the open structure of Open Coffee helpful for entrepreneurs who are looking for helpful tools and feedback for starting their business or for those who may just want to expand their ideas.

“You can be social or hide downstairs with headphones on,” Cooper said.

Emily Legel also participates in the Wednesday morning meet-ups. A graduate student studying urban and regional planning, she finds economic development fascinating. MERGE energizes her by allowing her to engage with passionate people with interesting ideas, she said.

The 22-year-old plans to create a more accessible, technological way to increase civic engagement with city government conversations.

“People don’t have time to go to meetings — then we end up with the park-bench situations,” Legel said. “As a grad student, I don’t have time, and neither does a parent.”

She also participates in the Start-up Games, a program in which 50 to 60 UI students create a company in 48 hours. Similar to the summer Start-up Weekend in which anyone can participate, participants pitch ideas, vote on their favorites, and then form teams to work on an idea to get it ready for a larger presentation, a more formal pitch. It’s a good crash course in entrepreneurship that’s hard to get, Legel said.

1 Million Cups also feature keynote speakers, including Armel Mushekuru, the founder and CEO of Cedar Rapids-based delivery service Feed Now. The organization faces competition from other delivery services such as Chomp and Uber Eats, but the Mushekuru company’s philosophy is to go above and beyond in customer service.

Feed Now’s difference lies in its willingness to “fetch” singular products from such stores as Walmart and Target and local restaurants that may not have delivery service for customers for a flat delivery rate.

Mushekuru has expanded his business from its 2013 start to servicing areas around Iowa to areas in Texas. The service is aimed to increase local business sales.

“[Customers] can say, ‘Hey, I can still get this delivered and order it from this local store,’ helping this business to grow,” Mushekuru said.

Open Coffee will recur, weather permitting, at 8 a.m. Mrch 13 with 1 Million Cups following at 9 a.m.