In a Nutshell
What: With a loan and strategic support from IFF, nonprofit LaunchCode was able to purchase a facility it previously leased after learning that its landlord planned to sell the property. The purchase opened the door for LaunchCode to complete a significant renovation of the building that has expanded its capacity, provided the organization with a space purpose-built to support its programming, and contributed to the ongoing revitalization of the neighborhood where it’s located.
Sector: Workforce Development
Location: St. Louis, MO (Fountain Park)
Size: 18,700 square feet
Cost: $5 million ($4 million renovation and $1 million to support expanded program capacity in the revamped space)
Funding & Financing Sources: IFF, Missouri Department of Economic Development Neighborhood Assistance Program, City of St. Louis Community Development Block Grant, New Markets Tax Credits, private donors
IFF Support: $579,500 loan closed in March 2019
IFF Staff Lead: Stephen Westbrooks, Executive Director – Southern Region
General Contractor: Color Art
Impact: 33% increase in the number of program participants served annually (600 to 800); Catalyst for $84 million in additional development in a three-block area surrounding LaunchCode’s facility
Since its founding in St. Louis in 2013, nonprofit LaunchCode has helped more than 2,500 people with little to no experience in computer science begin careers as software developers, data scientists, IT product managers, and more. Through intensive training and assistance with job placement – offered free of charge by LaunchCode – each of them gained access to high-paying, sustainable employment that, on average, doubled their previous annual earnings and drastically changed the trajectory of their families’ futures for the better.
At the same time, more than 500 LaunchCode partners like Microsoft, Boeing, and Accenture benefited from a reliable pipeline of highly motivated professionals amid a critical shortage of skilled coders in the labor force.
While an impressive accomplishment, LaunchCode’s first nine years were also a prelude to even greater impact in the future. This fall, the organization completed a $4 million renovation of its headquarters facility that has transformed the former unemployment office LaunchCode once rented from the State of Missouri from a drab, bunker-like structure into a welcoming, vibrant space fully integrated with the neighborhood around it.
The result of this transformation is a facility far better suited to support the nonprofit’s work to teach new skills to St. Louisans before connecting them with fulfilling, upwardly mobile careers in technology. And, by reconfiguring the building’s interior to add 4,000 square feet to the current 18,700-square-foot structure, LaunchCode anticipates increasing the number of participants enrolled in its programs from 600 per year to 800 after classes resume in person at the start of 2023.
Beyond the walls of LaunchCode’s headquarters, the nonprofit’s investment in the facility has been equally impactful. Located along the Delmar Divide, the historic dividing line in St. Louis between predominantly Black neighborhoods to the north grappling with the racist legacy of redlining and predominantly white neighborhoods to the south, LaunchCode serves as a figurative bridge across the racial and socioeconomic chasm and as a symbol of the potential that exists in the city when there’s equitable access to opportunities for all.
IFF provided LaunchCode with a $579,500 loan in March 2019 that enabled the nonprofit to acquire the facility after learning that the State of Missouri planned to sell it. With limited time to find a new location and limited cash on hand to purchase the building, LaunchCode turned to IFF Executive Director for the Southern Region, Stephen Westbrooks, to partner with the organization in identifying a viable path forward. With fast-growing revenues and a mission closely aligned with IFF’s values, the loan represented a vote of confidence in the organization’s vision, which has been fully realized with the successful completion of the renovation.
Scroll down to learn more about LaunchCode’s work and how its renovated headquarters will amplify its impact by taking a photo tour of the revamped space.
A new look to break down barriers
LaunchCode’s work revolves around increasing access to careers in technology to learners who haven’t historically had opportunities to pursue such careers, including women, BIPOC learners, and aspiring coders from under-resourced communities. Though the nonprofit’s inclusive approach to programming has been baked into its model from the very beginning, and the organization has long shared office space with the St. Louis NAACP in furtherance of its underlying goal, LaunchCode’s external presence in St. Louis’ Fountain Park neighborhood hasn’t always reflected its internal commitments.
“Prior to renovating, there was no visibility from the outside of the building looking in and vice versa, and the building felt very bureaucratic given its past use as a state unemployment office,” explains former LaunchCode Executive Director Jeff Mazur, who led the organization through the acquisition, renovation, and reopening of the facility before stepping down. “Our goal was to open the building up in a way that was more consistent with our vision for what LaunchCode is as a transparent, cutting-edge organization that’s inextricably tied to the community.”
To accomplish this, LaunchCode replaced thick, glass blocks that once provided the only natural light in the facility with plate glass that blurs the line between the building’s interior and exterior. LaunchCode also invested in the general beautification of the property with new landscaping to create a more welcoming, inclusive atmosphere. Newly installed, highly visible signage makes clear to passersby who occupies the building, with a nod to its status as a launch pad for the aspirations of those who enter. At night, the metal entryway is backlit to illuminate abstractions of computer code that further serve as a beacon to the community.
Community input was essential to the ultimate design of the facility, with LaunchCode convening neighbors to gather input about what those living in the neighborhood wanted to see in the reimagined space.
A futuristic gateway to careers in tech
Immediately after entering LaunchCode’s headquarters, visitors are immersed in a vibrant, multicolored lobby that serves as a gateway to the programming taking place in the building. The focal point of the room is an oversized LaunchCode logo in the negative space of a 30+ foot wooden slat wall. In front of the wall is a reception desk, where those interested in applying for one of LaunchCode’s programs can begin the process. To the right, in a fluid yet distinct space, is a coffee bar with comfortable seating to fill out the necessary forms.
“The space at the front of the building was designed to be a public area where anyone can come in to learn about LaunchCode, and it’s very futuristic and modern,” says Mazur. “With all of the design elements in the space, I think it’s a piece of art that really speaks to the beauty of what LaunchCode is as an organization, the beauty of the people who are part of it, and all of the hard work, sweat, and generosity that went into making the renovation possible.”
Collective ownership in the LaunchCode vision
To the left of the reception desk is a wall-sized acknowledgement of the group effort required to bring LaunchCode’s vision for its headquarters to life. First, a partnership with IFF and a loan provided LaunchCode with the guidance and support it needed to successfully navigate a period of uncertainty after learning the building the organization was renting would soon be sold.
“It’s impossible not to look back at this project and see that the door doesn’t open for any of it if we hadn’t been able to figure out a way to purchase the building,” says Mazur. “At the time, it felt like a very imposing challenge without clear pathways to success or any easy answers based on our own history and experience. But after being introduced to IFF, it became clear from the very first conversation that what we were facing wasn’t an unusual challenge and that IFF was there to help address that exact challenge with organizations like ours, which was a comforting thing to hear. And then having further conversations about what the path ahead could look like and how to evaluate some of the options for a loan solidified that feeling. Having a process to follow and experts to engage along the way really took the project out of the realm of bizarre and put it into the realm of the mundane, and that was really important because it’s what affirmed to us that we could make it all work.”
Once LaunchCode had purchased the building, a slew of funders and individual donors provided the financial support necessary to complete the renovation – including the Missouri Department of Economic Development through its Neighborhood Assistance Program, the City of St. Louis via a Community Development Block Grant, New Markets Tax Credits allocated by St. Louis Development Corporation (with Enterprise Bank & Trust as the equity investor), and more than 30 foundations and individuals, all of whom are recognized on a large wall at the left end of the LaunchCode lobby.
A multifunctional learning hub
At the heart of LaunchCode’s headquarters is a learning hub that provides the backbone for LaunchCode’s programs, which include a part-time course to develop skills, a course designed specifically for aspiring women coders, and a full-time, immersive experience designed to prepare participants for apprenticeships with LaunchCode’s employer partners.
Across LaunchCode’s programs, participants split their time between lectures in the learning hub led by a lead instructor and breakout rooms where they’re able to test and hone their skills. The main lecture hall can hold up to 200 LaunchCode students at a time, and, with a variety of configurations possible and full A/V capabilities, the space is a multifunctional hub that supports each program’s unique goals.
One of the most significant elements of LaunchCode’s renovation was the addition of a 4,000-square-foot mezzanine above the lecture hall that has provided the nonprofit with additional program space on the ground floor by relocating LaunchCode’s offices to the upper level. The result is a flexible, high-quality learning environment that is purpose-built to support the organization’s programs.
Breakout rooms for additional enrichment
One of the keys to LaunchCode’s program design is free-flowing collaboration between students and with teaching fellows, and the organization’s renovated facility has drastically increased opportunities for such knowledge-sharing by creating a variety of breakout spaces that can be easily reconfigured to accommodate small, medium, and large groups. After participating in lectures in the main hall, small groups that are typically made up of 12 to 15 learners spend the rest of their time in breakout rooms on the periphery of the lecture hall.
“In the past, students would finish the lecture and then there would be a chaotic scene as everyone rearranged tables and chairs to meet in their small groups,” explains Mazur. “We made it work, but by adding the mezzanine and moving staff offices upstairs, students now have dedicated spaces on the ground floor to relocate to for small-group learning. Each of the breakout rooms has tables, chairs, and monitors set up already, and the walls can be removed to accommodate larger groups. Instead of shoehorning learners into the space that we had, LaunchCode is able to provide a purpose-built environment designed specifically to support the program model.”
In recognition of the role IFF and Southern Region Executive Director Stephen Westbrooks played in bringing LaunchCode’s vision for the facility to fruition, one of the breakout rooms has been named in Westbrooks’ honor.
High-quality space for staff to support the mission
Upstairs, where the LaunchCode staff offices were relocated after the mezzanine was added, is another bright, vibrant space. Glass walls provide a partial view of the facility’s lecture hall, and individual workspaces create opportunities for collaboration without feeling cramped. Additional amenities for staff include a crisp, modern kitchen and dining area, as well as a rooftop terrace where staff can get fresh air and sunlight throughout the day.
A catalyst for community revitalization
From the rooftop terrace, it’s possible to see glimpses of the neighborhood surrounding LaunchCode’s headquarters, which is in the midst of a revitalization driven in part by LaunchCode’s presence in the community. In a three-block stretch that includes LaunchCode’s headquarters, there’s currently $84 million of development underway on Delmar Boulevard in the form of new housing, office space, ground-floor retail, and a performing arts center, in addition to streetscape improvements.
“When we started working in the building in 2015, there was really nothing happening in the immediate area, with a lot of vacant buildings and empty lots, and the only activity was on the four nights a week when our programming was taking place and cars lined the street,” says Mazur. “I think we helped light a path for others to see the possibility that existed on this stretch of Delmar. Now, there’s all of this investment and energy around making the neighborhood more vibrant and livable. Having now planted a permanent flag here in a very intentional way, LaunchCode is going to continue to contribute to the continued revitalization of this symbolically important street in our city.”