As coworking continues to grow and expand—industry giant WeWork is in the midst of planning for an IPO and social clubs like The Wing double as work and networking spaces—selling community has become a big business.
By definition, the appeal of coworking is about community, something more personal than the office cubicle, and less haphazard than a table at a coffee shop. As Curbed’s Diana Budds wrote, “coworking spaces have always emphasized ‘community’ wielding the word in an ambiguous and increasingly meaningless way to hint at an informal camaraderie.”
But increasingly, these for-profit enterprises—which, in many cases, are charging significant membership fees in excess of $200 a month, often a large expense for those most in need of inclusive spaces—are trying to tap into the value of truly building more diverse, equitable, and uplifting communities. Community is something that everybody can claim. But can these new office spaces, especially ones with an implicitly feminist mission, actually improve access to opportunity and upward mobility by tackling the inequality uncovered by corporate diversity reports? Or are these promises of community simply a new addition to the “we hustle harder and do better” sales pitch?
“I truly believe femme forward isn’t just a moment we’re having with #MeToo and Time’s Up, isn’t just a flash in a pan,” says Alex Steinman, co-founder and CEO of Minneapolis-based, female-focused coworking space The Coven. “This is a real movement that will lead to something bigger, brighter, a more femme-forward economy, and we’re already seeing that shift and that change. We see all these coworking spaces popping up that are femme forward as good news. We want other such spaces to open because we can’t do this work alone. We don’t talk about them as competitors, we talk about them as comparable businesses. I don’t think it’s tiring, or, like, pinkwashing razors or pens.”
Increasing access to opportunity
When Steinman began formulating the vision for a new business with her three cofounders, coworking wasn’t necessarily the end goal.
Steinman, along with fellow advertising industry veterans Bethany Iverson, Liz Giel, and Erinn Farrell, had banded together around the vision of diversity, but were sobered by the reality of the slow pace of change. After collaborating on diversity initiatives in the advertising industry, and regularly gathering hundreds of colleagues and coworkers to discuss gender equity and the pay gap—they were part of a group called Minneapolis MadWomen, named after the TV show—they became frustrated that their ideals didn’t necessarily translate into increased funding for the kind of support and training that helps marginalized groups like women and people of color move up the career ladder.
“We weren’t seeing the investment we wanted, so we decided to create the world we wanted,” Steinman tells Curbed. “As a woman of color myself, as you start to awaken to the inequalities happening to you and your counterparts, and you can’t unsee them. You have to do something about it, or just ignore it. I can’t just live and let live.”
After interviewing more than 100 area women about what they wanted and what they needed, they arrived at The Coven, a 5,000-foot space that opened last year offering “coffee shop-style coworking.” The audience they wanted to serve needed a space for freelance work, and an area to grow their side hustle, as Steinman puts it. Those looking to start their own businesses can come to the Coven to find support and encouragement. It’s a “hive mind” that can help them weather the storms of working for themselves.
Selling a more equitable community
Both the Coven and The Wing see providing free membership to disadvantaged groups as perhaps the most direct way to shape and improve the community. By helping more women tap into the network effect of bringing people together as a way to increase opportunity and diversity, informal meetings and shared spaces beget change, and access begets advancement.
The Coven has provided 137 community-funded memberships, roughly 20 percent of the company’s roughly 500 total memberships since the company opened last year. Applicants fill out a quick application, asking which communities they represent, their economic need, and how often they’ll use the space. They can decide whether they want to identify as community-funded members; “we don’t want to Identify them as scholarship kids,” says Steinman.
Precious Wallace, a 26-year-old black graphic designer and artist, was interested in the Coven for the networking opportunities and the chance to build her business. She became a community-supported member in 2018, and believes the Coven is “a true community space” that has helped her career.
“I’ve been able to cross paths with so many women and folks I’ve never thought I needed to know until I met them,” she says. “There has been a few women and different people who constantly are doing things around self-care and self-love that I find to be very important for myself and my own business. Those have been the ones that have helped me the most.”
The Wing, the female-focused coworking startup co-founded by Audrey Gelman, has also made community investment and engagement core to its image and mission, boasting a full-time diversity and inclusion team. Its scholarship program, which launched in New York in May 2018, now includes all of their spaces in Washington D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
So far, the startup has provided more than 200 full-cost memberships, and will soon offer more at its new spaces in Chicago and Boston. Recipients include public school teachers, social workers, immigration lawyers, public health professionals, community leaders, and small business owners, and that 70 percent of their current scholarship recipients identify as people of color, marginalized genders, or LGBTQIA.
WeWork, which released its first social impact report earlier this year, claims that the company has been a boon to startups, founders, small businesses, and diverse communities. The report found that one in eight first-time entrepreneurs in major U.S. cities are WeWork members, and 83 percent of WeWork members are in the innovation economy (defined by sources such as the Brookings Institution as being “part of 58 high-value and high-growth industries such as technology, creative, professional services, and advanced manufacturing”).
The company’s philanthropic reach is as varied as its corporate structure: the We Company, parent of WeWork, has a program to invest and support social-impact startups and other businesses via WeWork Labs, has pledged to hire 1,500 refugees, and also has a Veterans in Residence Program that has equipped 250 veterans with free office space since starting on Veteran’s Day in 2017. Its Access Labs coding bootcamp also offers deferred tuition to improve access to low-income students.
Designing a better space and community
All these business have also made design, both in terms of interiors and programming, a part of their pitch, especially as it relates to building and fostering community. The Coven is designed to be a space where you can “be comfortable being your whole self,” featuring artwork from women and non-binary artists in Minneapolis (“not just inspiring quotes” says Steinman), and chairs that fit bodies of all sizes. The Wing makes similar claims; its space isn’t institutional or dry, and flush with pastels, inspiring artwork, and thoughtful touches. It’s a place where members can be themselves, feel welcome, and receive needed support. WeWork, famously, offers optimized office space, via a growing suite of analytics and tracking tools and a team of more than 1,000 designers.
Programming has also been touted as a key part of the benefits of membership, with seminars and speakers aimed at inspiring entrepreneurs or providing practical business advice (the Coven, for instance, offers talks on finding the best healthcare provider for a small business). The Wing also offers various means for members to get connected to nonprofits and charities, by partnering with organizations such as the Women’s Prison Association, encouraging mentorship programs, and offering free space for such organizations to host their own events. Every location has a cafe, The Perch, that sells a dish that donates a portion of its profits towards a local nonprofit, such as La Cocina in San Francisco or Homegirl Industries in Los Angeles.
Going forward, the placement of such spaces may also become part of the design for good ethos. The Coven, for example, includes siting and location as part of this mission, according to Steinman. As the business expands—they plan to open more locations in the Midwest and the South, so-called tier 2 cities that “won’t get a space like ours and need it”—they want to find places near bike paths and public transportation, to increase access.
For profit, for good
Why not simply create a non-profit to serve these goals of community empowerment? For Steinman, it’s about changing the narrative. Doing good, and good business, should be the same thing. That’s why the programming at The Coven includes topics such as choosing healthcare as a small business owner and getting politically active.
“As women, we’re often expected to run a non-profit, and most people who meet us expect that this is a non-profit based on its mission and stance,” she says. “We don’t feel that being a for-profit and doing social good are necessarily exclusive. We think it’s important to have four, strong, female founders running a for-profit business helping build wealth in the community.”
One of the big benchmarks for success will be the success of these with community-funded memberships; what jobs do they get, what connections do they make, are they able to pay for their membership. Coven has plenty of uplifting stories, but the year-old company hasn’t collected comprehensive metrics and results for the initial classes of community members yet, but will in the future. Steinman suggests that it’s still early to judge the overall effectiveness of such endeavors.
Eventually, The Coven wants to create a fund to help members of disadvantaged communities help get businesses off the ground, to help remedy the gaps in generational wealth that help other access capital from friends and family.
“We want to support people as much as possible in a lot of different ways,” says Steinman. “It can’t be just about having diverse people in the space. They need to feel supported in the space.”