Iowa City ‘Jelly’ events bring local professionals together

BY BRIAN ALBERT | JUNE 17, 2011 7:20 AM

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On a normal day, Howard Butler sits behind the desk of his home office and develops software for his job, without any human interaction.

But one Thursday a month, he has the opportunity to sweeten his work life with a bit of Jelly.

However, this isn’t the kind you put on a sandwich.

Organized by the Iowa City Area Development Group, “Jellys,” or cowork sessions, can best be described as free events that bring together individuals who typically work from home. The goal, officials say, is to facilitate an organic work environment in which ideas are shaped, shared, and expanded upon.

“It’s very isolating to sit at home and work, so this knocks that off a little bit,” Butler said, taking a break from his work at a Jelly in the Daily Iowan newsroom on Thursday. “You can choose to aggressively not work with people, or you can lay back and meet people, figure out what’s going on, and paint faces to names.”

And while the development group currently hosts monthly Jellys at various locations in Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty, these Jellys may have their own home as early as August.

“Our planned meeting center is unique,” said Joe Raso, the group’s president. “We’re going to have our development group physically nested in the event space. It should really help us facilitate things and get to know people on both a professional and personal level.”

Officials said the official meeting center will give those who work from home a place to work alongside others on a daily basis, providing free wireless Internet, coffee, and tables.

Butler, who has attended every Jelly thus far, said he’s on board with the idea and hopes the place will become a convenient second office — one more suitable for both pleasure and business.

“There are good places to eat downtown, and my wife works there,” he said. “Also, I’d like to see these meetings become more regular. You might meet people and briefly see what they do, but when you only meet once a month, you don’t get to collaborate often.”

The Iowa City Area Development Group has hosted eight local Jellys — one each month since November 2010 — and plans to continue providing the resource in the near future. Officials said they most commonly attract software programmers, web designers, entrepreneurs, and freelancers, though other professionals are welcomed.

“These events are a major step in the next stages of economic development,” said Eric Hanson, the communications director for the group. “People who attend often have ideas with the potential to grow. They sometimes just need to speak with marketers or web designers to get things rolling.”

And while some Jelly-goers might feel intimidated, Yong-Ming Zheng, the operations manager at ASAP Technology Works, said his first experience was a rewarding one.

“You don’t normally get to go up to someone and say, ‘Hey, I want to sit next to you and work together,’ ” Zheng said. “I’ve only been here an hour, and I’ve already met a programmer who’s proficient in Python.”

Hanson said this natural collaboration is what will push these businesses forward.

“Traditional development isn’t going to work forever,” Hanson said. “People need to interact and create a culture of innovation. That’s what Jellys are all about.”

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