Strolling along Central Street in Woodstock, say you're headed for a pick-me-up at Soulfully Good Cafe. You may not be the first to wonder about the storefront next door and its unmissable all-caps sign: "OPTIMIST CENTER." What goes on in there, and who are these optimists in such an age as this?
I caught up recently with one of the Optimist Center's founders and Chief Executive Optimist (aka Optimist Prime?), Travis Hellstrom, who shined a light on the journey that led him to create a place for thoughtful, socially conscious, collaborative professionals to thrive and, yes, cultivate optimism in Woodstock and beyond.
Travis, honestly, my first thought is to thank you for your unabashed optimism. In a world of climate change and so much political angst, from what and where do you draw a hopeful outlook?
I appreciate that. Thank you.
I draw hope from those around me. I feel lucky to be surrounded by amazing people I love. They are people who don’t just dream of a brighter future, they’re creating it a little bit every day. I call those people Optimists and I love helping them. I think they can change the world.
I also think about what Stephen Covey wrote in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: there is our circle of concern and then our circle of influence. When we open social media or turn on the news, there is a lot to be concerned about. That’s a big circle. But the smaller circle inside that is our circle of influence. If we focus our time and attention there, on the people and things we can have a positive influence on, that can be very powerful.
Lastly I’m hopeful when I think of inspiring Optimists I’ve never met - people like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Fred Rogers, Ellen DeGeneres and many others. I keep a growing list of them.
There’s a quote I love on this. Mr. Rogers often told a story about when he was a boy and would see scary things on the news: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
I look for the Optimists.
The Optimist Center's sleek and brightly lit coworking space.
Tell us about what inspired the creation of the Optimist Center, and how did you land on Woodstock as the location?
My wife Tunga and I landed in Woodstock as I was finishing graduate school at SIT Graduate Institute. We were encouraged to visit by our friend Amy who lives in town. We came, loved it and moved here five years ago.
The Optimist Center was inspired by my service with the Peace Corps in Mongolia. Peace Corps changed my life. It taught me the power of finding your people, listening to your community and building human-centered solutions. It worked in Mongolia and it’s working here too.
The idea of coworking spaces has been growing for a while now. I’m passionate about finding out how to make them work in small towns. I think we’re landing on a model. If it can work in small towns in Vermont and Mongolia, I think it might work anywhere.
I love the idea of a coworking space with a yoga/meditation studio upstairs. Either I’d get nothing done, or I’d be rocket-focused and get everything done. Take us through a typical day for you at the Center.
That pretty much sums it up, actually. You can get nothing done (on purpose) or you can go into super productive mode. A typical day has people doing both.
We have a big quiet room downstairs with work desks, standing desks and glass whiteboards. We have another room with softer chairs great for kicking back, having lunch, typing an email or having a chat. Upstairs there is open space for yoga, relaxing, memory foam beanbags, and stretching out. On our top floor is a studio for warming up your lunch, taking a phone call or taking a nap. Seriously. There are two places to nap. Here are some photos.
A typical day has members moving up and down in the space to enjoy every room. Plus you can go outside and sit too. Or go next door to the cafe. Literally, the cafe door is 6 inches from our door.
Mindfulness in the middle of the workday.
Can you tell us anything about what some fellow coworking entrepreneurs are working on, and is the atmosphere collaborative?
Collaboration is one of our favorite values. We have amazing members and I love talking about them. Maeve loves and teaches yoga and wellness. Tunga is a woman’s health champion and soup expert. Rachel is an amazing editor and incredible project planner. Jill is a retired coach and tireless town leader. Emily loves social media, B Corps and hygge. Luke loves strategy and public service. Lori is an executive coach specializing in shared leadership. Joel is a computer whiz and mountain biker. Amy loves social entrepreneurs, Katie loves web design, Julia’s an amazing writer, Erin loves healthcare systems, and I’m the aspiring humanitarian usually sitting next to the aloe plant downstairs.
I promise you, when you visit and meet our members you won’t be able to leave uninspired.
I hear that every Thursday is open coworking day at the Optimist Center. Can I really just come in and work and chill out with you guys?
Come chill with us! That should be our tag line.
Yes, you can absolutely come in, work and chill out with us on Thursdays. Our Open Coworking Day is free and open to the public every Thursday from 10am to 4pm. People love coming in to work, use the fastest internet in town, meet new people, check out our memory foam bean bags and more. We often have free workshops on Thursdays too, just check out our programs on Facebook to see what’s up this week!