On June 11, 1816, Baltimoreans packed the upstairs art gallery at the Peale Museum on Holliday Street, staring starry-eyed at a fiery chandelier of the city’s very first gaslights. Museum Director Rembrandt Peale had installed the exhibit as a ploy to attract evening business to his struggling museum, but it caused much more than an influx of admission.
The bright, new source of energy ignited a burning public curiosity in a city of dim candles and oil lamps, and Peale immediately realized the potential impact this innovation could have on the dark streets of Baltimore. Just a few days after opening the exhibit, he set out to charter a company that would light the country’s first ever gas street lamp less than eight months later. Peale’s company, the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, would grow to become one of the longest standing businesses in the nation, known today as Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE).
Now, one of BGE’s original plants in Southwest Baltimore is home to a company with a similar mission to bring new energy and innovation to a constantly evolving city. The Startup Nest, cofounded by Kyle O’Connor ’03, lives on the second floor of one of the campus’ weathered, red brick buildings. A perfect picture of the neighborhood’s industrial past, metal breezeways and staircases crisscross courtyards, and the lot is illuminated at night by a sign that reads, “Gaslight Square,” in celebration of the property’s rich history. Once inside, however, the vibrant, collaborative working space bears little resemblance to the energy plant it once was, breathing modernity into a lingering air of entrepreneurship.
Like Peale’s Gas Light Company, The Startup Nest also hopes to revolutionize Baltimore, allowing it to be seen in an entirely new light. While the kind of light they are after is slightly less tangible than that of a street lamp, Kyle and his partners, Deonn Henderson and Marcus Howard, founded The Startup Nest with dreams of shifting the public’s perspective of Baltimore to recognize its potential as a thriving ecosystem for entrepreneurship.
The Startup Nest is an incubator and coworking space dedicated to making Baltimore a more connected, innovative, and inclusive city for entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. Entrepreneurs can rent desks, private offices, or conference rooms in an environment conducive to creativity. The company also hosts events like pitch competitions, launch parties, and panel discussions, as well as business-related workshops and seminars led by subject matter experts. Additionally, the team helps their member companies get plugged in with a network of compatible investors, and just last year, six companies raised nearly $3.2 million over the course of four “pitch days” put on by The Startup Nest.
“I just felt like we needed to have a platform where entrepreneurs could navigate the waters of business from a genuine standpoint,” says Kyle. “My two cofounders and I are serial entrepreneurs, so we’ve been a part of businesses that have done well, but we’ve also been a part of businesses that have failed. I think that lends a lot of credibility when it comes to the advice that we offer other entrepreneurs.”
Kyle started his first company as a student at Marymount University. With no business school education, he found himself learning by trial and error as he built a digital design agency from the ground up. The company, KO Classic Productions, has grown over the years and continues to serve clients in both the public and private sectors. Kyle also founded a technology company that specialized in mobile payment for the hospitality industry. His first time engaging with investors and raising capital, the road to successful acquisition of that company brought with it many challenges and triumphs.
While the lessons Kyle learned throughout his early business ventures were invaluable, his history with entrepreneurship extends even beyond those experiences.
“I come from an entrepreneurial family,” he explains. “My two grandfathers started businesses when they returned from the military. My mom was an entrepreneur too. At 12 years old, I was in her coffee shop in Washington, D.C., sweeping beans off the floor, and I got to see the trail that she blazed. I got to witness a decade’s worth of the blood, sweat, and tears that went into being a business owner.”
Kyle’s passion and his own experiences breaking into the business world inspired him to create a space for entrepreneurs to learn and grow by inspiring and supporting one another. He brought his idea to Deonn and Marcus, and they agreed that Baltimore had an untapped potential. So, they set out to make resources accessible to all entrepreneurs and to create a more inclusive business culture throughout Baltimore. Like The Startup Nest itself, around 65% of its member companies are minority owned.
In addition to the programs and resources they offer members, The Startup Nest also partners with organizations like The Be. Organization and Baltimore County Public Schools to expose students to STEM-related fields and entrepreneurship at an early age.
“We feel we need to start engaging with people who have bright ideas early because as life goes on, it hits you, and you start to feel discouraged and swayed by your parents or society, and you put your ideas on a shelf,” Kyle says. “It is important to encourage the youth to pursue their passions.” With the next generation of entrepreneurs in mind, Kyle and his partners look forward to further growth and expansion for The Startup Nest. Plans are already underway to renovate the floor beneath the current office space, and the adjacent building will hopefully be soon to follow. “Our goal is to make this property a true campus,” Kyle says. “The trouble with Baltimore is not talent; it’s keeping the talent here. We want to make sure that as these companies grow and scale, they can actually stay in Baltimore and, specifically, here.”
The team has big ideas for what’s to come, and if the entrepreneurial legacy of the red brick campus’ original tenant is any indication, the future is bright.