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The Vuka Vibe: Austin Grown Coworking and its Change-Makers

Luna Data Solutions Knowledge Center

Posted by Luna Data Solutions Knowledge Center
April 29, 2016

Vuka is a contemporary community hub surrounded by the 1st street madness in South Austin. Within Vuka lies a working space like no other – one with world maps, soft decor, and wide open spaces fostering an environment for the creative creature in all of us. The Impact Hub coworking community at Vuka is home to coders, marketers, designers, radio hosts, and other social entrepreneurs hard-wired for creating business through social initiatives.

What exactly is the Vuka 'Vibe'?  

The Vuka 'vibe’ offers a creative place of awakening. Vuka actually means to awaken in Zulu (South African language). Intrinsic to this vibe is their mission which focuses on supporting people in realizing their visions.

In 2016, they slated to continue this mission by expanding to two more locations on North Lamar and St. Elmo. They have also joined forces with the Global Impact Hub network giving their members access to coworking and programs around the world with over 11,000 members in 80+ countries. 

vuka vibe austin coworking community luna data solutions The vibe is real, Photo Credit: Bonnie & Lauren Photography

Over the last few weeks, I was fortunate enough to speak with some of the members of the Vuka/Impact Hub coworking community; I focused on PenPal Schools, Tiny Spark, and Kakaxi. These companies were chosen as Luna Change-Makers for their continual dedication to driving social change through business.

1) PenPal Schools – bringing the human element back to education 

PenPal Schools connects students around the world to learn together. This learning resource creates a global peer-to-peer community of students, educators, and parents who believe meaningful cultural exchange is an essential part of education. Whether connecting 3rd graders in Texas to students in Ghana to discuss current events, or high schoolers in Wisconsin and Peru to reflect on documentaries produces by young film makers, PenPal Schools strives to bridge the gap between diverse backgrounds by providing students an outlet to exchange ideas and experiences. 

Vuka Vibe Austin Co working community luna change makerPenPal School Students in Florida, Photo Credit: PenPal Schools 

Enriching the education experience through interaction 

At the time of my visit, PenPal Schools had left the cozy serenity of Vuka in exchange for a coveted spot in this year's TechStars line-up alongside ten other stellar start-ups. I spoke with Mark Danforth, the Head of Learning and student achievement for PenPal Schools, who explained their goal of facilitating a cultural exchange and fusing it into the learning process. They found success fusing PenPal Schools into 168 countries and fostered this cultural exchange for over 70,000 students to date. 
Mark said, "With PenPal Schools we are trying to approach learning through the lens of data in order to improve our capacity to monitor and better understand what works on both levels (student and teacher). We are taking on the western way of academia, moving towards an interactive style which provides an environment where students and teachers alike are more inclined to learn." 

Empowering a world of experts

Crystal Germond, Head of Marketing, spoke of the empowerment effect of PenPal Schools on participants across the world:
"Our platform enables learners to be experts on their own communities. This learning process builds a sense of empathy between PenPals, and an increased level of understanding for one another."
Their team has created a platform for unbiased international conversation, and their vision to expand education beyond cultural constraints aligns directly with the social-driven culture of Vuka. As the platform grows, these conversations will hopefully lead to more compassion, diverse perspectives, and a hunger to learn beyond textbook tradition. 
Start the conversation with a PenPal today and connect with PenPal Schools on TwitterLinkedIn, & Facebook

2)  Tiny Spark - Amy Costello on investigating the business of doing 'good'

The warm energy and calming aura of Vuka is a slight change of pace from the war zones Amy has experienced during her years as an investigative reporter, journalist, and TV correspondent. Amy is an Emmy-nominated foreign correspondent who spent five years as an Africa Correspondent for The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International and WGBH Boston. Her stories have been heard by millions of listeners across the United States and around the globe.

Austin co working community vuka vibe luna data solutions change maker series Amy Costello hosting UNICEF podcast, Photo Credit: UNICEF

Having the Courage to Dig Deeper

Amy's history is laden with foreign experiences, stemming from her early days growing up as a racial minority in Hong Kong. These early experiences fueled her desire to help others, which led to her current role: exposing the misdoings in the philanthropic business of ‘doing good.’ These philanthropic 'misdoings' were made evident to Amy throughout her years spent traveling to small villages across Africa including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

For her reporting efforts in Africa, Amy was a finalist for the Livingston Award, the largest all-media, general reporting prizes in U.S. journalism. Her PBS television story, “Sudan: The Quick and the Terrible” was nominated for a 2006 Emmy Award for Outstanding Feature Story in a News Magazine. 

Currently, Amy produces the podcast "Tiny Spark," an informational medium exploring the business of 'doing good' by focusing on harsh realities of success and failure in philanthropy, nonprofits, international aid and for-profit social initiatives.

Uncovering the Magic Bullet – There Isn't One

Amy thinks it is necessary to encourage and promote transparency about failure in the philanthropic arena. 

"We're seeing this 'fail forward' and 'fail quickly' notion permeating through the for-profit business and tech fields, but when you're dealing with people's lives – failing is not an option."

"Everyone is looking for the magic bullets, the silver lining, the one-touch solution; there rarely is one. Failing forward or failing quickly leads to experimentation, and we begin to try things in different countries, in rural villages in Kenya that we would never 'experiment' with in our own backyard here in Austin. That is the difference, and that is the overarching problem. I'm all for trying new technologies, but I have seen too many projects harm what was intended to improve." Amy highlights the importance of passion and humility permeating her work.

"You must find a way to the story in the right way – from a place of authenticity. Find out how to tell it in your city, your backyard."

Follow the true story of TinySpark on Facebook, Twitter, or tune into the Podcast here.

3)  Kakaxi - bringing the story behind your food to mobile 

I had the pleasure of sitting in the spacious backyard at Vuka as sunlight shone on Adam Smith while he spoke of Kakaxi’s future, and more specifically about the planned road trip to visit a Dallas farmer later that day. Adam is the Co-founder of Kakaxi, a mobile community designed to support sustainable farming by sharing the stories behind the produce. 
vuka coworking luna change maker austin community
Soil stories from Yahweh's All Natural Farm, Photo Credit: Kakaxi


Kakaxi is aiming to flip the food model towards the farmers, allowing consumers to re-connect with the process behind their produce. The Kakaxi seed was planted at SXSW Eco in 2015, where Adam met his partner Mr. Taizo Otsuka. The founding team consists of an international blend of farmers, entrepreneurs, and scientists all focused on developing a social networking app revolved around farm to table stories and experiences. In addition to the social networking app, the Kakaxi team has developed a 3G enabled device to which uses a time-lapse camera showcasing harvest stories, and other atmospheric stats such as temperature, humidity, and sunshine exposure. 

Developing Transparency for food lovers all over the world

Kakaxi hopes to create a new level of food transparency by allowing consumers to actually see how and where their food is growing and who is producing it. Consumers are able to share recipes, photos, and connect with other foodies using location-based map functionality. 

Discover your Kakaxi food story today, and connect on Facebook

So, What does the Vuka 'Vibe’ mean to These change-makers?

vuka vibe austin coworking community impact hub austin

 Impact Hub Coworking at Vuka, Photo Credit: Bonnie & Lauren Photography

"There is just something about the Vuka 'vibe.' you can't really describe it unless you've experienced it." -Mark Danforth, PenPal Schools

"For me, it's just a visceral thing, it's our home, we can breathe here, and it is where we became a team." -Crystal Germund, PenPal Schools  
"I can do my job literally anywhere in the world. For an autonomous person, that type of freedom is invigorating." -Amy Costello, Tiny Spark 

A huge thank you to Mark Danforth and Crystal Germond of PenPal Schools, Amy Costello of Tiny Spark, and Adam Smith of Kakaxi for taking the time to speak with the Luna Team. Vuka is overflowing with Luna Change-Makers and the 'Vuka Vibe' truly radiates through their community of socially driven entrepreneurs.

Check out Vuka today to get involved with a global community of Change-Makers

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