The woman behind Denver's community workspace movement
New York transplant Ellen Winkler got her start in construction
Before Ellen Winkler made a name for herself in Denver, shaping work spaces, she started her career on construction sites in New York. From there, she worked her way westward, moving to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where she met her partner in life and sometimes partner in business, Jason Winkler. The couple launched a series of professional pursuits, landing in Denver 15 years later with three kids. Winkler, 44, is perhaps best known for helping to popularize Denver’s coworking trend, as the co-founder of Battery 621 and INDUSTRY.
You got your start in construction. What drew you to the industry?
I was from a good Catholic family. I was definitely the black sheep. My two older brothers took over my dad’s business. My dad was a contractor and had a quarry business, and I started thinking that’s where I was going to end up.
My first job out of college was paving Interstate 17 in upstate New York. I liked that after all the logistics you could see what you created and it wasn’t just the transferring of paper.
Then why didn’t it quite click?
Every time I walked onsite I had to prove myself again. Plus, I learned that I couldn’t just sit behind a desk.
For you, what lies beyond the desk?
I left New York when I was 27. I had learned that I loved to be outside and working with people who were actually building things with their hands.
So I met Jason and moved to Wyoming and was going to open a construction company and do what I already knew. The opportunity fell in front of us to start, with partners, an event management company called Mountain Sports International. This was right as Red Bull was starting to take off. Because of my past experience, Red Bull saw an opportunity to hire me as a project manager for large-scale events, because I could help build their venues. So I did the first national event ever done by Red Bull in the country in Snowbird, Utah. We did an event called HuckFEST and we did the first Red Bull big air ski and snowboard event.
And you ended up in Denver a few years thereafter?
When Jet (third child) was 6 months old, Jason and I thought maybe it’s time to try something else. Television and film had really changed because now there was no barrier to entry with iPhones and HD cameras, and we were having a tough time keeping employees [in Jackson] because it was so expensive. Jason decided that we were going to open a second office. We started looking at other cities – Salt Lake, Portland, Seattle, and then we looked at Denver, because the mountains were something we weren’t going to give up.
What did work look like for you then?
So in 2004, we had met our partners, Mike Artz and Frank Phillips (the Public Works team), and we had this idea of coworking. It wasn’t even coworking back then. We were just creating an office space for ourselves. We only needed 8,000 to 10,000 square feet for both of us, but we bought a 30,000-square-foot building. Really what we did is we went out and invited like-minded companies we had worked with … and we were like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this big office. You want to share it with us?’ Mike and Frank were working with Spyder; Chuck Sullivan and Johnny Cline with Something Independent were key; Icelantic was key; and companyBE.
And the idea obviously was successful because Battery 621 was at capacity almost immediately, and then you and Jason did it on an even bigger scale with INDUSTRY Denver, filling 120,000 square feet with creative and tech companies in the last year. Describe how you and Jason work together and independently today.
Together, with our partners, we created Battery six years ago. I am co-creator, co-founder and co-owner – likewise, at INDUSTRY. Together with S-Arch Architecture, I was lucky enough to design the space top to bottom.
Together, Jason and I work on development, master planning and curation of business ecosystems. Jason and I are considered real estate developers by everybody else, but it’s not what we call ourselves. It’s really about place-making.
We work in master planning, office environments and hospitality. This tends to be hands-on design that focuses on bringing people together to communicate and enjoy and experience. We work hard to find a company’s cadence or core values and create spaces and experiences that truly represent who they are.
My favorite project I’ve ever worked on was probably the Commons on Champa. It was really nice to do something for the city of Denver, especially for the entrepreneurial community, and work with Tami Door (CEO, Downtown Denver Partnership) and Erik Mitisek (CEO, Colorado Technology Association).
INDUSTRY is not fully built out yet. What’s to come?
First off, I would say this is more of a community workspace than a coworking space, because we can all go back to our little hives when we need to, but we can also come back out and be a part of something bigger. It works for small startups and the big, big companies – you know CorePower Yoga is going to take 30,000 square feet. We’re 100 percent full on the next 70,000 square feet we’re opening; we don’t have a single office left. Then the apartments are getting built, and once those are in a good place, we will start on the townhomes. We’re also going to partner with Troy Guard. He’s doing a restaurant for us in the front, off Brighton Boulevard. We’re going to be doing the next INDUSTRY, which will be up at 38th and Walnut. It was Stride, now it’ll be another multi-phase development. We’ll lead again with 46,000 square feet of office, probably have one to two restaurants in there.
You mentioned Stride. Roughly a year ago, it was announced that the creators of Battery 621 and INDUSTRY were going to build a new collaborative office concept, focusing on health-technology companies, but the project fell through. What happened?
I think it was a big relief. Why are we going to change and be something we’re not? Catalyst (the health-tech campus) is going to happen, and some of our team split because that’s their focus now, and you know what, we should all just build a better Denver and help each other.
What’s it like working with your husband?
I wouldn’t suggest to most people to work with their spouse. I think Jason and I have a very unique situation, but I’m not saying it’s easy. And we have three children and more than anything else that’s my priority. We’re also so different, Jason and I. I’m a little bit more introverted, and I’ve learned from Jason how to put myself out there.
What do you still want to achieve?
I want to create and design an amazing public space. I think something Denver needs to watch is the infill of outside investment and outside people, because it’s a buzz city in this country right now. [We need to] really protect Denver so it’s not just about financial gain, but creating beautiful designs and smart city planning. I could also see myself stepping away and going into more of a giveback phase.
At any given time you have so many different projects – presently INDUSTRY, Viawest, etc. You’re the epitome of the 21st century working woman. Do you believe you can have it all?
I don’t think you can have it all. I think you have to figure out what’s important and make sacrifices. My kids come first, my job comes second, and a lot of times, I come third.