At the Geek Group’s Leonard Street Labs Facility, more commonly known as their Galactic Headquarters, the group is redefining what it means to be a geek. As the Executive Director, Lis plays a large role in the advancement of programming and sponsorships to make it all happen.
“We have about 150 sponsors, they are all over the world. A good third are in the greater Grand Rapids area, but also in places like England and Australia. We couldn’t do it without their help,” says Lis. These sponsors, in addition to donations, make The Geek Group accessible to over 9,000 members around the globe. The donations are made through their Kick a Buck program, allowing anyone in the world to give a dollar at a time. The Geek Group is in the Top 20 on YouTube nonprofit, competing with the likes of TED, with millions of views and more than 17,000 subscribers.
Lis joined The Geek Group eight years ago when they were still located in Kalamazoo. After stumbling across the non-profit on the Internet, she jumped right into doing administration, taking her computer background to help with the website. “The philosophy of it was exactly what I had believed in for forever. I was a girl scout, and my main project for my Gold Award was where I went out on the street and I helped people learn about science. I took a telescope and I set up in the middle of the street, pointed it up, and taught people what was on the other side. The idea of the organization is letting people explore for the sake of learning. That is one of my core values … I said I want to wake up everyday and love my job. I really do, and this is exactly what I wanted to do and I didn’t even know it. It was the best decision ever.”
The Geek Group moved into the 42,000 sq. ft. Leonard location in December of 2010, and it’s been a work-in-progress ever since. In what used to be a YMCA, they redid the electricity, plumbing, heating, and floors. “We’re almost done with the remodeling of it. We decided that we wanted to take out time to do it right,” explains Lis. The new facility features a Robotics Lab, High Voltage Lab, Machine Shop, Woodworking Shop, Electronics Lab, Computer Lab and Audio Visual Production.
In addition to her duties as the Executive Director, Lis runs a few of these labs, including the CNC (computer numerical control) equipment. “They are machines that make what you use everyday. I run them and I teach people how to use them,“ she shares. “We empower people to make whatever their heart desires.”
A third of the people who use the space like to tinker, a third are serious businesses, and the other third just like to learn. “I had someone come in a couple weeks ago, she wanted to make a bookshelf, but she didn’t have any tools. So, I helped her do all the steps. … I’ve helped a couple of people who own small businesses and they want to do a prototype. They make their parts in-house, and by saving all that money, they can save up to buy their own machines. They use this as a stepping-stone. Now they are making [the parts] here in Grand Rapids and they are making new jobs in town.”
Membership is easy. They get a lot of people who don’t think they are “geeky” enough to participate, but Lis says they just have to find one thing. “When you get your membership we go through what your skill sets are, and if you don’t know how to do something we show you how,” she offers. “We had a guy come in and he redid his bathroom. He had considered buying the equipment and it would’ve cost him $3,000.”
The website also has a live feed of the lab and extensive online forums. “We think it is pretty great, because a guy in Australia can send us a part. They had a hand in building something really awesome that they can’t do on their own.”
What is Lis’ geeky passion? “Astronomy. That is what I went to college for. We’re building a simple radio telescope so you can sit and listen to the stars.” She also has a knack for creating things with the CNC machinery, which she used to make her submission for Art Prize this year, Earth. Her entry will be featured in the lobby of DeVos Place.
We ended the visit in the high-voltage lab. The Tesla Coil in this lab is one of the only accessible coils in the world. Anyone can come in and test an idea after meeting with the group to go over safety. Students are going into their first year of college as robotics majors, having worked on the big robots in the lab. That is something they typically wouldn’t do until their third year. “The rest of the students can’t even compete. We really believe in removing the barriers between learning,” she says. “So pick a facet of science and technology that you want to make something in, and we have a lab that does that.”
They are also planning classes that will roll out in the near future and are in the process of adding a recording studio. Lis would like to see more arts added, including ceramics and painting. Despite the 42,000 sq. ft. at their fingertips, “it’s not nearly big enough,” she replies with a smile.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kelly LeCoy is a Grand Rapids native, an entrepreneur and graduate of Calvin College. She owns Uptown Kitchen, a shared-use kitchen and event space in Eastown and is passionate about food and small business.