Continued Learning at Next-to-No Cost? No Brainer!

Jonathan Soma, 29, and Jen Messier, 28, love learning -- but are the opposite of traditional academics. They're both laid back, up for adventures, cook all sorts of food, and have a following of thousands of Brooklynites who have never met them. Three years ago, they founded the Brooklyn Brainery, a center of crowd-sourced education available to community members at low cost. They wanted to learn something new every week, but had a hard time finding learning opportunities that felt intimate, but weren't too expensive or intense. It also required a lot of energy to track affordable lectures, classes, and skill shares across venues and to then run around the city to find them.

The Brainery is two rooms in Cobble Hill with chalkboard paint walls, miscellaneous cooking supplies, remnants of art projects and bright pink folding chairs. It is occupied by students -- anyone who wants to learn something affordably; and teachers -- anyone who has a passion for a topic that they want to share. Classes are often offered as one-offs, though there are several multi-week explorations and a few weekend intensives, too. Topics range from book binding, to borscht-making, to HTML coding, to grantwriting (ok, that last one was self-promotional). The most expensive class is Design Gym at $225. The cheapest: Biking in Heels: Commuter Cycling for Women -- which is free.

The demand was clear from the get-go, even though Jen and Soma had no idea it would grow so large so quickly. The kimchi party to open the space in January 2011 was, according to Soma, a "complete and total disaster" because without much advertisement, 300 people showed up to a space holds 50 at most. Now, they run a well-oiled machine with up to four classes each weekday night. Jen, a full-time Brainery staffer, books teachers who self-nominated or who were referred through past teachers or friend networks. Some classes are sold out within hours of being posted on the website, and about 40 percent of students have taken more than one class.

The Brainery is a win-win-win. Students (mostly 20 and 30-somethings) explore their passions, develop new interests and connect with new, likeminded individuals. Teachers (mostly early-to-mid-stage career millennials) develop teaching skills and build concrete expertise in their field to advance their careers. The community wins from having a unique place for connection and collaboration.

Jen and Soma agree that the most successful classes are ones that feel fun and where people stick around after (either in the space or at a nearby bar to keep talking. Even though karaoke, comedy and zombie makeup, for instance, are anything but traditional classes and are probably irrelevant to solving social problems, the people who teach and take these classes are not; when strangers with a willingness to participate in a creative endeavor come together over a shared activity, it starts a conversation with unlimited potential.

People in the community create opportunities for others to excel in their field, like Ian West, a chess teacher who asked Whitney Crutchfield, a screen-printing teacher, to help him and his now-wife to design their own wedding invitations (a success all around!). Or Mark Hinchey, who took Timothy Cooper's screenwriting class and ended up being a P.A. on his set months later after running into him in the neighborhood. Or Andrew Linderman, whose storytelling classes have led to plentiful freelance work with his students, their companies, and strangers who reach out after reading about the class.

Part of what defines the Brainery, and more broadly the millennial generation, is its ability to go with the flow. There was no business plan. Jen and Soma didn't found it with any researched notion of what people are interested in or why they would pay for a class at an unaccredited place called the Brainery. They didn't want to be like other startups that peg themselves as the anti-convention or anti-norm; they just wanted to create more opportunities to learn on a daily basis. From that basic idea, they say, it grew organically, and was self-sustaining from the class fee revenue.

And it's continuing to grow in big ways. On January 15, they will be opening their new coworking and class space in Prospect Heights. Jen and Soma are growing into the new space with an exciting vision:

Let's get a bunch of people with varied skills and facilitate connections between them so that they can grow their work. And, let's leverage those skills into creative, fun projects to execute for the Brainery that we can pay for. The collaborations will come back to our Brainery community to make it even better.

They're also growing beyond the bounds of Brooklyn with their new project, Dabbler, which emails a new hobby every month for $2/month. The Brainery's reputation, too, has inspired other skill-sharing centers in communities across the country and world.

As they say, knowledge is power. The Brainery is the perfect model for exploring talents (new or untapped) without jumping to spend thousands of dollars getting an advanced degree in something 'academic.' Knowledge and production are increasingly outsourced, but when those skills are kept within a community, that commodity is powerful. Communities could wield incredible internal ability and capacity by shifting traditional ways we think about learning to include skill share centers, too. I'm excited to see it happen and to continue being a part of it.