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In Nov. 2021 after ten years of our evolving mission and impact, we changed our name to Gathering Ground. You may still find reference to our old name Creative New Jersey in posts created prior to Nov. 2021.

Elevating Camden’s “Innovation Ecosystem” through Community-Conscious Startups and Collaboration

Blog by Melissa Le, Co-Founder for Waterfront Lab, Camden’s coworking space, innovation hub, and community center, and Board Member for Waterfront Ventures, a Camden economic development organization.

We met Melissa during our 2017 Creative Camden Call to Collaboration. During our two days together, Melissa championed business development in Camden and preparing Camden’s youth for the 21st-century world of work.

In this blog, Melissa tells us a little bit more about the how her work at Waterfront Lab and Waterfront Ventures has helped elevate the “innovation ecosystem” of Camden. She also shares information about how Waterfront Ventures is supporting community conscious startups, including Penji, a rising Camden design startup and Invincible City Farms, an urban farm combatting Camden’s food desert. Finally, she shares with us the key to building great partnerships based on her own experience.

At Waterfront Ventures, we believe in the power of hope, possibility, and collaboration. As a board member, I am proud to hear our community’s feedback on how they see our values in our events, online content, and relationships we were fortunate enough to have built.

As a new take on economic development organizations, Waterfront Ventures utilizes the power of our “innovation ecosystem” to directly address Camden’s issues of workforce development, talent retention, and lack of opportunities, and we’ve come a long way since my fellow board members, Khai Tran and Johnathan Grzybowski, first launched their individual businesses in Camden in 2015. They recognized the need for a thriving business and innovation community contributing directly to the city and its residents, so together, that’s what we set out to achieve.

We started with attracting businesses, investors, mentors, and resource providers to Camden and developed key partnerships to incentivize their involvement in building Camden’s “innovation ecosystem.” Once our ecosystem, consisting of businesses, civic organizations, and government, was in place we began to circulate resources and opportunities to grow our Camden Innovation community, and strengthen partnerships. As the Waterfront Ventures community grew, Camden became more appealing: people’s perspective of the city’s development shifted.

In 2017, at the Creative Camden Call to Collaboration, we met with community leaders, businesses, and organizations, allowing us to build better relationships. What we gained most from our meetings with Camden leaders, students, and residents was the ability to develop empathy and understanding of what was needed in Camden: inclusion and innovation.

From this insight, we were able to establish collaboration in our growing ecosystem, ranging from coordinating community events and sharing resources to official partnerships and commitments to provide access and opportunities that support startups.

Since startups and technology-based businesses are quick to scale, innovate, and can provide solutions for both their industry and within their community, promoting their growth helps raise all tides.

By developing infrastructure and policies to allocate business resources, programs, and incentives, we can encourage more businesses to double down on Camden’s development. Furthermore, establishing partnerships advances each individual involved, as well as growing Camden’s community resources, and contributing to Camden’s Innovation Ecosystem, as we’ve seen in two startups launched with the assistance of Waterfront Ventures: Penji and Invincible City Farms

Penji, a rising Camden design startup, and leaders of Waterfront Ventures and Waterfront Lab

As Waterfront Ventures enters into our next development phase, we work to grow and foster community-conscious startups and businesses that will invest back into the Camden community. Startups such as Penji, an unlimited design startup, are working to revolutionize their industry as they build their design platform.

Supporting Penji’s success and collaborating with their team allows for community integration as Camden gains a champion and a community win. Collaboration is key in growing both our work at Waterfront Ventures and supporting the success of others in the city. Through collaborations between local businesses, civic organizations, and government, startups like Penji and Invincible City Farms – an urban farm combatting Camden’s food desert – we can grow, invest in, and give back to the Camden community, particularly in the form of job opportunities for Camden residents.

In addition to grooming soon-to-be success stories like Penji and Invincible City farms, we encourage, facilitate, and connect available job opportunities to Camden students and residents. Penji has publically announced their initiative to hire 100 Camden students by the end of 2019, allowing Camden students and residents to access to jobs and internship opportunities not available before. So far, Penji has hired Camden residents, students, and graduates from Rutgers Camden, Camden Community College, and Hopeworks ‘n Camden.

Penji’s college hires: Steven Nguyen, Liam Ely, Naciye Cakir, Sekinah Brodie, and Anesis Kim

The key to building great partnerships like these is to focus on the other party first, before your own personal needs. Entering a relationship with an abundant mental attitude allows both sides to open up to innovative partnerships, solutions, and new ways of contributing to the community. Learning about a potential partner’s business and communal ventures, personal and professional goals — and asking how you can help them achieve it — makes a world of a difference, setting you apart from shallow relationships. Building genuine relationships allows both sides to support one another’s growth, where failed relationships stem from selfishness and empty promises.

Invincible City Farms winning $25,000 at Waterfront Venture’s Camden Catalyst pitch competition

As startups like Penji and Invincible City Farms grow in Camden, they act as role models to other businesses interested in joining Camden’s ecosystem. It is our job as an economic development organization and a Camden supporter to supply them with resources, connections, and opportunities to scale their business. From what we learned at Creative Camden’s Call to Collaboration, Camden is a collaborative and innovative community. All we need is a spark to light our fire and someone to root for.

If you are interested in participating in our growing Camden innovation ecosystem or learning more about our work in Camden, you can join our Facebook group Camden Access or feel free to contact me directly at

Melissa Le is a Co-Founder of Waterfront Lab, Camden’s coworking space, innovation hub, and community center, and Board Member for Waterfront Ventures, a Camden economic development organization. As a daughter of Vietnamese refugees, born in Camden, she is excited to come back to Camden and build an Innovation community to support students, startups, businesses, and organizations in the city. With her knowledge and experience in community building, event planning, and working in startups, she looks forward to collaborating with the Camden community and supporters to help Camden’s rising!


“Last night I didn’t sleep because I was thinking about this [model of bringing people together]. With the New Jim Crow Project [focusing on mass incarceration] we have to plan events and programs all the time and suddenly I’m thinking that more people have to have conversations: I don’t have to have a keynote speaker, I have to create the kinds of programs that have people talking with each other and thinking about action steps. So it’s really changing the model for us about the way we’re going to do our communicating and programs and raising the level of self-awareness in education.”

– Barbara Flythe – Campaign to End Jim Crow (Trenton)