Audible, the tech-enabled audio book company that is part of Amazon, unveiled its “Innovation Cathedral,” located in Newark, on May 17. The results were stunning.
The company lovingly renovated the Second Presbyterian Church, a magnificent old building near its Newark headquarters, into a show-stopping, 80,000-square-foot office space where some 400 tech employees and developers will work.
NJTechWeekly.com went on a tour of the facility before the official ribbon cutting, and we had our phone camera out for the whole thing. Clearly, anyone working in such a venue will feel inspired.
Audible founder and CEO Don Katz addressed an audience in the newly created auditorium in the building, noting that the church was established in 1811, and that by the 1950s there were 10,000 congregants. Then the church declined, and “was a dead building for 25 years.” Audible’s dedication to bringing the building back is a metaphor for the rebirth of Newark, he said.
The idea to rehab the Innovation Cathedral idea started when Wayne Nash, senior vice president of global real estate, facilities, and community affairs at Audible, went to see Katz and said, “You know, that church [down the street] has been dead for years, and it actually has great bones. What if we renovated it and turned it into another facility because we just keep growing jobs and we need more space?”
The renovation effort fit into another of Audible’s core values: that corporate giving shouldn’t be just a charitable checkbox. The cathedral was a way for the company to give back to the streetscape of the city and create some excitement for people who visit Newark, bringing more energy to the downtown. It also would energize the company’s own developers and tech teams, as well as those who would be inspired to join the growing company.
During his talk at the dedication of the Innovation Cathedral, Katz noted that Audible works to improve the lives of those without privilege in the cities and countries in which it operates because Audible seeks to exemplify what a company can mean, beyond the products or services it sells. “We believe in giving people a chance, and we work to make this so, particularly in the urban core,” he stated.
Audible’s ethical lens is “really good for business,” he stated.
During the event, a young woman who had been homeless when she arrived in Newark told the story of how she became connected to Audible. She noted that when she was in need, she found Covenant House, a homeless youth shelter in the city. “While I was there I was able to get myself back on track.”
The people from Covenant House got her a place on the customer care team at Audible. She didn’t have any work experience or a college degree, but “Audible still trusted me to get the job done.” She added that she has developed a new vision for her future since being at Audible, and will pursue a college degree in business analytics to help her realize her dreams at the company. And, she continued, Audible is helping her pay her tuition costs.
One of Audible’s most successful programs for helping to create change in Newark is one that provides $500 per month to employees who move to the city. Katz has always said that the investment works out for Audible in that the company gets more productivity out of employees who live close by; and it attracts younger, up-and-coming employees who like the idea of being pioneers in a comeback city, and who like the rent support.
Also, he noted that “a forthcoming economic impact study will show that each of those people on a per capita basis will inject $10,000 to $15,000 into the Newark economy, just because they’ve chosen to live here, as opposed to commuting from afar.” Recently, NJIT decided to offer rent support to its employees who would make the move to Newark.
If more companies did this, especially companies that already have a large number of employees in Newark, “there’s no question that a vibrant street life would come back far faster than it already is,” Katz told the audience.