Laura Bacon. (Imiivo Photo Studios)

The life and work of Columbia native Laura Bacon has long centered around community building. For much of the last 15 years, her efforts were made as an Italian teacher and later an alternative education teacher at Wilde Lake High School, and in nonprofit arts administration. Recently, those efforts have been focused on her nonprofit, which is based at Columbia’s nearby Lakefront.

Now firmly guided by her new passion for entrepreneurship, Bacon promotes the efforts and wares of fellow women of color entrepreneurs at The 3rd, “A place where WOC can find access to various needs, ranging from capital and collaboration to friendship and a community that provides understanding of our gifts and challenges,” she said. “My talent is in putting all the right people in the right space to make something special.”

What inspired you to start The 3rd?

I’d been teaching for 14 years and was feeling burnt out, so I started to think about how I could take a new approach to doing what I love and use my heart for service. Founding The 3rd in July 2019 solved that issue, because it satisfies my passion for teaching service while also allowing me to offer a space where WOC can gather and work to become the best version of themselves.

 Where did the name of the business originate?

It’s from the teachings of sociologist Ray Oldenberg, who pioneered the concept of The 3rdin his 1989 book, “The Great Good Place.” Within, he explains that most of us have a home and a work life, and that a person’s third place is an essential zone outside of home and work with little to no barriers to entry. It can be any of a number of places, like a restaurant or bar, a community center, a gym or some other “home away from home” that provides an essential zone.

However, most people don’t have that third place. That means many of us are missing out on a crucial space of expression, connection and growth.

What obstacles did you face?

I founded The 3rd pre-George Floyd’s murder, so it’s important to point out that my wanting to found a business as a Black woman was met with considerable pushback from stakeholders, with plenty of loaded questions as well as unsolicited advice. However, it’s a data-driven fact that the available offerings to underserved markets were not serving this sector, which is a growth area.

What is your background in entrepreneurship?

Before I founded The 3rd, I didn’t really have one. However, I have a hard head and a tenacious spirit, which has served me well. But know that teaching qualifies you for any job, because all of the needed skills qualify anyone for any endeavor.

How is your organization set up?

It’s set up in three parts: the first is online and offline membership for WOC entrepreneurs in our market area, which spans from Northern Maryland to Northern Virginia, with the reach getting broader by the day, as we’ve signed 180 various service-based and product-based members since August 2021; the second part is our intentional partnerships that amplify members in the community for advocacy and to lobby for our member’s needs, such as our liaison partnership with Busboys & Poets in the nearby Merriweather District; and the third is our new physical space at the Lakefront, which was needed to involve the broader community.

How is the new physical space set up?

We took what some people viewed as a gamble by leasing 8,000-square-feet last November in the “cursed” spot (since it’s hosted many other tenants) in the Exhibit Building at the Lakefront. We can accommodate six tenants in our offices; in addition, we have the AppleCore Bakeshop as a storefront and kitchen tenant, as a shared kitchen is available for rent on a rotating basis and two conference rooms, with the entire space available for event rental. It also serves as a public podcasting space that the entire community is welcome to use.

How did you obtain your financial backing?

By hustling. I applied for grants, talked to foundations, went on pitch competitions, talked to Howard County government and did a considerable amount of crowdfunding. The most recent effort generated $55,000; overall in 2022, we brought in more than $300,000. Most of that money went to building out the space and incorporating our operations.

How else do you generate revenue?

Through leasing to our tenants, catering and food sales, plus donations and events. We also have about 20 founding partners who have all pledged at least $1,000 to support our early efforts.

How many members are you looking to serve by the end of this year?

Our goal for 2023 is to add 100 members for a total of 280.

How will The 3rd University operate?

We are looking to offer member-led webinars which allow us to share our expertise within the community while giving the members exposure to their business. Then there are three-part series, such as a leadership development program with the Women’s Giving Circle of Howard County, and other cohorts that we’re working on with technology concerns to promote WOC becoming tech savvy. They are being sponsored by Kaiser Permanente.

What’s the advantage of setting up as a nonprofit?

That I can focus on people over profits. That opens doors to other kinds of funding, which lessens the need to fundraise. 

How many members can you support?

Since we support them via in-person events, webinars and by simply being here, we can support an infinite number of members.

How are you looking to grow your operation?

Via the efforts of myself and my team of three WOC entrepreneurs who work 10-15 hours a week for us. Obviously, that isn’t a sustainable model, so we’re working toward getting more funding to allow us to hire full-time staff. We have the organization and the space in place and that’s important, but this year is about expanding our operations and working to keep the administrative side sustainable.

What’s your five-year goal for the organization?

To really see how we can bring WOC not just that third space, but to bring the mindset and the ethos of what we’re doing to other communities.