Adina and her husband Marc are the co-founders of Collab, a collaborative innovation hub and fabrication lab in New York City.  Collab also serves as a  think tank, where people working in a number of interdisciplinary fields can share ideas, stimulating the imagination, creativity and possibility.   

Q&A with Adina Levin:

How and when did you decide to create Collab?  
The concept of Collab had been brewing in my and my husband’s mind for many years.  I think I was possibly conceptualizing it even before I met my husband.  I remember when I was 14, my parents moved me to Florida. I had no friends and felt really alone so I decided to get a job at Dream Burger in the mall. I remember thinking then about how there were systems that divided people in their jobs and how good it would be if I could spend some time understanding other parts of what other people were doing in other areas of the process so I could do my job better. I ended up being moved around to different positions in the company. I accepted deliveries, ordered supplies, flipped burgers, washed dishes, prep food, ran the register, and learned what the processes were and how to work and manage all aspects of the production.  All of my jobs and various career choices taught me the importance of engaging other people in their work and having not only an understanding of the process, but sensitivity to the work others are doing.   Years later, when I started in outside sales, I remember consciously applying all of my experience from Dream Burger, converting it to what I needed to do internally and externally to be my best.  Yet it always amazed me how disconnected most people remain in their work from all other aspects of what is needed in order to do their jobs. As the years passed, I went on the nurture my entrepreneurial spirit and I had a slew of other jobs and experiences, and eventually it lead me to develop branded products for companies.  This was in the early 90’s when the Internet was second to the phone book. I was manufacturing products and sourcing and researching how to produce products before Google. I am grateful for those days, because I learned how to research in the most unique ways. I immersed myself into the world of manufacturing, and research and development. I would literally cold call industrial plants and factories and ask them if I could visit their plants and look at their equipment.  On my visits, I’d talk to them about their capabilities and would leave these factories with a slew of ideas for products. I would then go back to my clients and show them things that no one else was showing, because I was creating unique products based on capabilities I had researched – this, for me, was really when the idea for Collab started to brew.

Having to travel all over the city, country and world to visit factories, I always thought about how little access people had to machines, tools, and knowledge in one space. If there was such a space, I imagined it would be interesting to see what would happen. And for me, the idea of having tools, equipment and machinery under one roof would provide an endless well of inspiration.

I started contemplating – if there was a group of people that were in one place with tools, equipment, curiosity and creativity, it seemed like a perfect way to continue to innovate, create opportunities for everyone and provide a really interesting work experience.

Marc and I were working together and we shared similar thoughts.  Our years together in business made these questions take on deeper meaning.  We would brainstorm all the time about building community, sharing information, sharing tools, and how these things are missing in this new era.  In 2008, when the economy took a tumble, we knew it was the right time to pursue our vision.  We felt very shaken by the economic downturn, and figured it was the right time to pursue our idea.  Others were in the same situation.  We needed one another now more than ever.

We continue to feel moved by our vision for Collab, and all the ways in which it has evolved, because we believe this is a new way of doing business.


Adina Levin in her office at Collab in Manhattan.

Please describe how your creative brain works.
I would love to explain how my creative brain works, but I am still figuring it out.  I struggle a lot with this, because I have the ability to understand logic and strategy very well, which makes me at times identified as a business person, and puts me in the position of having to do sales and marketing.  But a deeper side of my creative brain is my imagination.  I tend to get lost in ideas and they become visions that unfold.  As I am sitting somewhere, thinking about all the possibilities, I get confused and anxious because my business mind tells me to pick up the phone and pitch the idea to someone, and my creative brain thinks I should first start by testing the idea and putting it together.  Seeing this problem written on paper, it doesn’t seem so, but it is very overwhelming for me at times.  I try to trust my instincts.  As well as think of my brain as something I need to feed.  So in a moment, if I feel like my brain is operating more in the imaginative space, I try to feed it (if that makes any sense).  I guess I try to trust my brain.  But the brain is pretty mysterious so in the end, who knows?  I think the best way to understand my creative brain is to walk into my office.  It is a physical representation of what is happening in my head.  For my whole life I have tried to change it, but it is who I am.   It’s complicated.

What creative things are you doing  independently and collectively?
I like to spend time making discoveries.  I find myself at times obsessing over the way something moves, or what is causing a light to shift, bend and appear a certain color, or how a material can be used in a new application or why a machine is only being used in one way (to make one object) when it could be used in multiple ways.  I spend a lot of time taking things apart and researching how things work.  I have always been very curious, and also love music and the performing arts.  Growing up, I could spend hours at a time creating, working and exploring.  I was never a great student so I tend to feel anxious when I commit to any kind of “classes.”  I wish I felt differently, but I do accept that this is part of who I am and so I look for ways of educating myself, and in this process I end up somehow turning this limitation into some kind of interesting endeavor.  Starting Collab and being able to unite with incredibly talented artists, programmers, designers and other creative people, I have been able to take part in unusual projects and create unique experiences.  Over the past year, the group at Collab has done some very interesting work together.

Collectively we have participated in the production of the World Humanitarian Day performance by Beyoncé at the United Nations.  We have recently finished developing a personal beauty assistant mobile application for Maybelline, and we are working on developing a new real time content platform for retail.

I am very excited about a current project we are working on- it is a simulation ride in Brazil.   At the moment I am not able to disclose many details except to say that I am really enjoying the project because it involves simulation, special effects and a slew of other really interesting elements that I am looking forward to seeing come to life.
How did you figure out what you wanted to do?  Did you have any aha moments?
I have had many aha moments.  I hope I continue to.  I cannot remember one moment that lead me to where I am now.  There have been so many.  I was not a good student.  I took my GED when I was 16 and while my friends were going to school, I was working and learning about myself.  I did not attend a traditional college.  I went to broadcasting school, attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, traveled, explored, and even did singing telegrams!  I have always believed that I should try to learn from my experiences and that by staying connected to the work, I would be clear minded, and therefore able connect the dots.

How do you define success, and what has helped you to become successful?
I have had so many failures.  I remember when I was a kid my dad would say I was afraid of success.  I think about that a lot as an adult, because I feel like, for me, the word success is so final.  I think I have identified that word with some kind of ending, and therefore, I do not like thinking of myself as a success.  In a strange way failure is motivating.  I know that in my daily work, I feel accomplished if a client is happy with the work we have produced.  I guess for me I feel my best about the work I am doing when I know I am exceeding expectations of the people I am working with, and that they feel this way too.

What do you love about the work you do?  
I love the endless possibilities. I love that I get to spend my days with people who share similar ideas about the limitless possibilities when creativity, imagination, and a problem solving spirit is combined. It’s not always easy.  Many times I am overwhelmed, but the support of the people around me.  The fact that I care deeply about these people makes me love what I do.  It keeps me connected to the work.

To learn more about Adina Levin and Collab, please go to their website