Punto Space co-founders Debora Balardini and Sandie Luna have taken the stale idea of an event venue, and breathed new life into the industry.
They’ve created something so unique and something so special, that their two year old business is something we’ll be talking about for years to come, because it is a concept that will set a new standard for the way venue owners will operate moving forward.
Inside Punto’s walls, it’s more than just your average venue. Punto was created out of love, out of passion and obsession, integrity and autonomy, and a need to build up communities and bring communities together. You feel that listening to their story about how they went from “running around New York City trying to find themselves”, to creating this business out of a “deep desire to have sustainability, and not wait for someone to present them with an opportunity” to step into their truths.
It started with just a simple idea: to have an office space and a small performing arts space – and Debora and Sandie are no strangers to theater arts. Debora is a Brazilian native who made New York City her home, and traveled as a teacher and performer to Japan, Argentina, France, and Chile. Sandie is an Afro-Latina who was born in the Dominican Republic, raised in Miami, but has deep roots in New York City. She studied Theater and Sociology at Florida State University, and cofounded the Nettles Artists Collective with Debora.
Between the two of them, they’ve both received numerous accolades and have been recognized for countless awards for their outstanding productions and performances, and will be honored again this coming March by SheROCKS.
Their simple “office space” idea happened to turn into 4,000 square feet, including three levels with four distinct studio spaces all under one roof located in the Fashion District, in the heart of Midtown Manhattan.
Before they made that space their home, they were turned down by one realtor after another, doors closed, and they were met with confusion when explaining the vast scope of their idea: to converge all of their artistic passions into one fresh and unprecedented venue. They failed forward, and they failed fast. They picked themselves up and they stumbled before they were finally able to see their vision come alive.
They channeled all of that wisdom and knowledge they learned along the way into this one interview. They have some of the best about how you start a business, what to do when you have a myriad of ideas bubbling inside of you, and how to take a step back to get a fresh perspective that will lead you in the right direction.
These women embody what it means to be changemakers and social entrepreneurs. As the first Latina women to own and operate an event space in New York City, they are innovators and pioneers. They are laying the foundation for Latinas and all women of color who need the motivation, an icon, and the boost to break ground in a new or existing industry. They are doing what’s never been done before, and are putting their own stamp on what it means to be an artist, slash philanthropist, slash venue business owner in New York City.
They share copious amounts of wisdom on life and finding yourself, finding your voice in a world that may not always support or understand what you’re doing or what you’re trying to create, and doing what it takes to make your own rules, and carve out a path that fits your mold.
Watch a snippet and read the entire interview below.
AP: In a sentence or two, how would you describe Punto?
Sandie: Punto is an event and performance space. We’re located in Midtown, in the heart of the Fashion District, and we have three levels, four studios, and one memorable experience.
AP: Where were you ladies before Punto?
Debora: We were a mess (laughs) Haha, no, we were great. We’ve been friends for 12 years now and always in the arts. We have a company called the Nettles Artist Collective for 12 years also. We were always creating together, having beautiful dialogues about art and then Punto came about.
Sandie: I think before Punto we were rolling around New York City trying to find our place. We were like a lot of people, full of passion and desires, but not really having a home for them, knowing we wanted to do something meaningful and knowing we wanted to do something that would allow us to express who were were. So we were just rolling around the city trying to find our place and doing a lot of things to try to find what that place was.
“We were like a lot of people, full of passion and desires, but not really having a home for them, knowing we wanted to do something meaningful and knowing we wanted to do something that would allow us to express who were were.”
Debora: Especially being women, Latina, and artists, which can be very difficult in this city.
AP: With all of the running around, trying to find yourselves and your place in the city, how’d you guys come up with this idea?
Debora: It started with a very simple idea because we are a physical theater. We’re performers creating visual art. We thought: we just need an office and a little small space to move. That office became 4,000 square feet, four spaces and three levels, because the idea had evolved.
We wanted, like Sandie said, to create a community, to find our voices. So we had to create something a little bigger than just a small little bubble for the two of us. We do have a community based on the last twelve years of our work, but our ideas and our ways of thinking and creating, were pretty much in a bubble. And Punto was perfect for what we were thinking and what we’d created with Nettles, which is a resident at the space now.
“It came out of this deep desire for sustainability and independence. Being able to lead the way, instead of waiting around for somebody to think that I’m valuable enough to give me a chance.”
Sandie: I think it also had to do a lot with sustainability. For me there was this question of sustainability. As an artist, always waiting for somebody to give me a break didn’t fit when I searched my soul. I said to myself, “Wait a minute. I’m not this person in any other aspect of my life, so why am I acting like this in my career?”
It came out of this deep desire for sustainability and independence. Being able to lead the way, instead of waiting around for somebody to think that I’m valuable enough to give me a chance. Also, sometimes when you get a chance, that chance comes with ties and compromises that sometimes we’re not willing to take. I wasn’t willing to compromise in some of the ways that I had to in the commercial world. So yeah, it came from a deep desire to have sustainability and to not wait for somebody to present me with an opportunity.
Debora: To add to that, we were always believing we could do our own thing. We always had the idea of having my own, of having our own – that autonomy was always there.
Not only that, we started having the desire to share how to do that with other artists and other people around us. People were coming in asking, “How did you put your business together?”, and we would respond with, “I’ll show you”, because everything can be done together if you want.
AP: So how were you guys able to open the space? Did you receive VC funding? And if so, what was that process like, especially being Latina women? I don’t see women, especially minority women, in the event space in the city. What did you guys do to secure the space?
Sandie: You didn’t see them; now you do (laughs)! Hopefully there will be a lot more after us.
“You have to believe in your dream, but you also have to have a practical plan that inspires confidence from others.”
It was a combination of private funding and also going into debt. When you believe in your dream – you have to believe in your dream, but you also have to have a practical plan that inspires confidence from others.
It was us putting up money from ourselves and then putting a plan together to get private funding. And it’s still something we work on because tomorrow is not secure. But we feel confident about what we have created. That’s how we’re able to do it. It’s a lot of passion and dreaming, and also having the balance of an actual business plan and an actual idea, a product, that is unique and that we believe sells itself.
“It’s a lot of passion and dreaming, and also having the balance of an actual business plan and an actual idea, a product, that is unique and that we believe sells itself.”
Debora: It’s a lot of risk, and you have to be prepared for the risks. You can never be fully prepared, but you have to have some kind of belief like, “Okay, I’m getting into this.” It is a risk I always thought I could take now than when I’m 80 or 90 and say, “Oh, I should have done it.”
Sandie: And also, talking about funding… It may sound unrelated, but there comes a time in your life when you have to take stock of your abilities and your talents and how you’re using them.
“There comes a time in your life when you have to take stock of your abilities and your talents and how you’re using them.”
So yes, I’m an artist, but there’s also these other things I do really well that I’ve been ignoring businesswise. I asked myself, “How can I bring that all together?” And I think that as you mature and you become a little wiser, you say, “Wait a minute. There are other aspects of myself that I’m not using. How do I bring all of this together to create a concrete plan for myself?”
AP: What was one of the biggest challenges you guys faced when starting your business and opening the space? How’d you overcome the challenge?
Sandie: Finding a space. Finding somebody who would rent us a space was incredibly hard. Especially now within the last few years. New York is changing. There’s less and less room for the small entrepreneur.
A lot of the spaces we visited, we got turned down. We had relators who said, “I’m sorry. I can’t keep working with you guys because nobody’s gonna rent to you.”
Before having this space, we had another space. It was actually like going to “Real Estate University” or the “Real Estate School for Hard Knocks” (laughs). We were there for nine months and the person we rented from never brought the building up to code.
We wasted a lifetime, nine months, and money waiting for this person. That was a real test because that was right at the beginning. We could have said, “Forget this. This is not going to happen. We can’t do this.”
But after that deep, deep disappointment and asking, “What did we do wrong? Why did this happen?”, we had to pick ourselves up, and say, “No, we think we can do this. We really believe we can do this and this is just a lesson.” We started looking again, and we encountered a lot of closed doors when they looked at who we were and what we wanted to do until we found this space.
Debora: To piggy back off of that, I remember it was like three months of crying, “Like are we going to do this or not?” But we took a deep breath and suddenly, a friend of mine, who was a realtor, passed our case to somebody else, and the woman said, “I think I found the space for you.”
Basically what happened, it’s because our business model is not a normal business model. We got, “Are you an event space or are you a theater?” No, we are not a theater, and we are not just an event space. So the model of the business was already different. That’s also why we thought it could work.
We had to explain our model over and over and over. But once we found this space, things just happened so fast. That was a sign we were on the right track. The space was already up to code. There were just a few things here and there. We had an amazing project manager, who surprised us with the construction we needed, and in four days he was able to put the space together for us.
“We wasted a lifetime, nine months, and money waiting for this person. That was a real test because that was right at the beginning. We could have said, ‘Forget this. This is not going to happen. We can’t do this.’ But after that deep, deep disappointment…we had to pick ourselves up, and say, ‘No, we think we can do this. We really believe we can do this and this is just a lesson.’”
Sandie: Sometimes it’s like a romantic relationship. If it’s too, too hard, you have to let it go (laughs).
AP: Did it feel scary because it moved so quickly?
Sandie: It’s funny because we never stopped being artist. Right at the time we were flying to Paris to do a workshop with our teacher and mentor. So we were in Paris doing this amazing training, then going to a cafe to work on figuring out plans and colors for the website. I was overwhelmed, even though it was exciting. But it felt right and it kept moving forward. You just go with it.
Debora: After coming from a landlord who was not responsive for nine months and then you have a landlord that responds within a half an hour, it’s is a big difference.
AP: What has it been like for the last two years and what have you learned about running an event space?
“The first year is a test. Because you have nothing to base yourself on. You don’t have anything.”
Debora: The first year is a test. Because you have nothing to base yourself on. You don’t have anything.
We were like: Let’s do fashion. Let’s do weddings. Let’s do social parties. Let’s do corporate. How about meetings? How about rehearsals? And how does the artistic part fit into it?
The first year was very challenging. At the same time, we were trying to put the curtains up. You’re trying to make sure you have furniture, and also asking if you need furniture. It’s exciting because you’re putting all of your ideas into place, but there were also all of these questions.
The second year was the reality check. We started to see what kind of events this space really serves to the community. And we’ve done everything from cat shows to Bat Mitzvahs to sweet sixteen parties. Social, fashion, pop-up shops, you name it. Anything can happen here.
“There’s a lot of learning involved, and you have to be open to learning and to accepting that your original idea of how you thought this was going to go down, may not serve the business. You have to constantly be bouncing back and forth between what you think is right and follow your gut, and what actually works. Sometimes the two meet up and sometimes they don’t, and you have to stay flexible.”
Sandie: It’s been a learning curve to go from all of these ideas the first year. Then the second year, you’re like, “Yes, I have that idea, but does that serve our audience, our clients?”
There’s a lot of learning involved, and you have to be open to learning and to accepting that your original idea of how you thought this was going to go down, may not serve the business. You have to constantly be bouncing back and forth between what you think is right and follow your gut, and what actually works. Sometimes the two meet up and sometimes they don’t, and you have to stay flexible. That has been the biggest thing for me the second year, learning to check back with this being called Punto and its clients, and seeing what works and what doesn’t work.
AP: What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs and event space owners?
“Have a plan. Be obsessed about your plan as much as you can…if you don’t have any kind of fascination for what you’re doing, you can’t be motivated…Having a plan and being obsessed about that plan is what ignites you to move forward.”
Debora: Have a plan. Be obsessed about your plan as much as you can. To me, and also from the school that we come from, art is your obsession. If you don’t have any kind of fascination for what you’re doing, you can’t be motivated. You can’t wake up in the morning and say, “Alright. Today I’m gonna do this. It’s my dream.” Having a plan and being obsessed about that plan is what ignites you to move forward.
Sandie: Don’t go around the possible failure. Just get to it. If you’re gonna fail, fail fast so that you’re able to recover and keep going. I’m working on that (because I overthink things), but I think that would be the thing: Just go for it. Go for it. Go for it.
“Don’t go around the possible failure. Just get to it. If you’re gonna fail, fail fast so that you’re able to recover and keep going…until you don’t fail.”
And for me, someone with my personality, it’s tough because nowadays so many people are going for it that you feel like, “But that person is not the best at it, and look at them. They’re doing so well.” Don’t compare yourself to other people. Go for it. Fail. Fail fast. And keep going until you don’t fail.
AP: One of the things I love most about Punto is how involved you ladies are in the community, and how passionate you are about helping women and women of color. So what do you hope to accomplish with Punto Space?
Debora: There’s so much. I just went to a class about how to run a collective. Of course we already have a collective, so the guy asked why I was there. I said, “I’m here to recycle. To see where I’m standing, what I’m doing, and where I can get better.”
I love teaching. I get into a zone when I’m sharing something. Sometimes you’re so caught up in the business – the numbers, the reports, this and that – so I want to get to that point where I’m able to share different kinds of subjects.
“We are a for-profit company, but with social good in mind.”
Sandie: We are a for-profit company, but with social good in mind. What’s so important to me, to us, what we want to accomplish, is that Punto be a brand that’s recognizable for all of it’s value and all it has to offer. Everything we have worked so hard for it to be. All we give our clients with all our hearts.
And in return, that turns into profit, which we can then funnel into supporting the things we believe in. Supporting the arts. Supporting the causes that are making a difference and don’t have the physical space that we do. That’s the point of it all. To create space, all kinds of space, for all of us.
AP: I love the passion you speak with when you talk about Punto. How important would you say passion is when starting a business? Not that you can’t be successful, but I think that if there’s no passion behind the idea, you’re less likely to stick with it. But if there’s passion, you’re more likely to stick with it and see it through. Would you agree?
Sandie: I think passion is really important. But when you say that, what I think of is integrity. It’s hard to measure passion. You can be passionate and not be able to see things through all the time, or have an ebb and flow.
But when you say, “I’m gonna have integrity with my passion”, then it changes everything. Because everything you do, you do it from a place where you want to feel proud of. So then if you fail, it doesn’t matter because you did it with integrity. You did it with everything you had. So, I think passion is super important, but I would take a step back and define passion.
A lot of us think we’re being passionate, and passion is great, but it’s not everything. I know it sounds so counterintuitive for an artist to say that, but I think it’s important to think about what passion entails.
Debora: To me, it’s that obsession I talked about. When I’m obsessed about something, I’m thinking about everything, all the details, including the integrity and the passion. But passion can burn you out.
“Passion and integrity are two different sides of the same coin when you’re trying to achieve something.”
Sandie: Yeah, passion can burn you out. I’ve experienced that as an artist. Like, you’re so passionate, but you’re not getting what you want. And you’re trying, but you may not be trying in all the right ways for you.
Debora: And then next week you won’t have anything to eat, because you’re only passionate (laughs).
Sandie: I love that you asked this question because it’s making me think – and I’ve never thought of it this way – that passion and integrity are two different sides of the same coin when you’re trying to achieve something.
AP: What does it mean to you to be the first or the minority in this industry?
“I love pioneering. It’s a sense of pride that other people can do the same.”
Debora: I love pioneering. It’s a sense of pride that other people can do the same. That’s where my sharing comes into place as well.
One of the initiatives we have at Punto, is Punto Inspires. We were talking with a group of amazing women who wanted to know how we did it. Sitting there saying, “You can do it too”…it’s empowering. So empowering other women, empowering other minorities is just…whoa. One day I’m going to be dead, but somebody else is going to carry it on. It’s gonna keep going.
Sandie: It’s interesting because…I’m a black Latina. It carries a certain weight and you can’t forget that. And it can be a weight or it can be an armor, or it can be a badge of armor. So you have to pick what you’re gonna make it.
In this instance, I feel very proud. And I feel a sense of responsibility to break the stereotypes, and to get people to realize that how we are portrayed isn’t accurate, that there’s a lot more to us, and that we are not special. Yes, we’ve gotten to a place that’s beautiful and wonderful, but there’s a lot of us like this. We just need to create more opportunities, and that’s what we’re doing, so it feels really good.
“ I feel a sense of responsibility to break the stereotypes, and to get people to realize that how we are portrayed isn’t accurate, that there’s a lot more to us, and that we are not special. Yes, we’ve gotten to a place that’s beautiful and wonderful, but there’s a lot of us like this. We just need to create more opportunities, and that’s what we’re doing, so it feels really good.”
AP: What does having an Amazing Perspective mean to you?
“First of all, I love the word ‘amazing.’ You can’t say it without feeling something. It’s like a kaleidoscope: to be able to see the world through all these colors, and to be able to shift, and to be able to experience the joy within the struggle.”
Sandie: I got chills!
Debora: I’m going to cry!
Sandie: First of all, I love the word “amazing.” You can’t say it without feeling something. It’s like a kaleidoscope: to be able to see the world through all these colors, and to be able to shift, and to be able to experience the joy within the struggle. And it’s perspective. It’s being able to see beyond your situation.
Debora: All of what Sandie said, and also being able to be present in everything that you’re doing. I tear up because I have a very specific reason. But it’s definitely being able to be present, and say: “This is where I am. This is how the temperature of the room feels. This is who I’m talking to.”
You’re never ahead of yourself. You’re never ever second guessing. You can see the future. You have some perspective. Being able to center and to be centered.
Sandie: And I think it’s good to look for help to find that Amazing Perspective. I think it’s important that we don’t feel as humans that, “I’ve gotta figure this out by myself.” The more we talk about the need for this Amazing Perspective in our struggles, where we come from, and what we’ve overcome, we also should talk about the tools.
I’m a big believer in therapy. I’m a big believer in meditation. I think whatever your avenue for soul searching is, just don’t let the pain lie there dormant, eating you alive and affecting you in every way. I just want to say that because I think it’s important that we don’t put the responsibilities only on ourselves like, “I need to lock myself in a room and figure this out.”
It’s about finding community, which is party of what we’re trying to create, and finding help, something that works for you, whether it’s yoga, meditation, therapy, or a friend, especially in the communities we come from. We don’t talk about these things. We just get over it and then you replicate the patterns without meaning to.
Debora: And then you pass it on to other people. That’s the opposite of what we want to pass on to our community at Punto.
“Amazing Perspective is also that: realizing that sometimes you gotta get help, but sometimes you’re gonna leave some people you love behind. And it doesn’t mean you love them any less. It just means you love yourself a little bit more.”
s:: It’s so funny because I had this same conversation today. We were taking about how to break the patterns of where you come from. We were talking about how you will be shunned and ridiculed. How difficult the people who love you will make it for you to grow.
It doesn’t mean they don’t love you. It’s just that, that’s how they know how to love you, and they want you to love them in that same way. So when you decide to say, “Wait, but I want a different life”, that’s where the real pain comes of, “I can love you, but I can’t have you be in my bubble because you’re affecting me. You’re holding me back.”
That was really, really painful for me. It’s still painful every time I realize a relationship is not what I wanted it to be. I think Amazing Perspective is also that: realizing that sometimes you gotta get help, but sometimes you’re gonna leave some people you love behind. And it doesn’t mean you love them any less. It just means you love yourself a little bit more.