Before opening the Coven, a co-working space for women and nonbinary people in Minneapolis, Bethany Iverson and her fellow co-founders were in a “pretty dark place.”
Months had passed since President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, and the emotions on tap — anger, rage, frustration and sadness — never seemed to rotate out. So Iverson, along with Alex West Steinman, Erinn Farrell and Liz Giel, began to think about what they needed. Better yet, what did their community in Minneapolis need?
After interviewing hundreds of people in Minneapolis, the four women — who had met through their work in advertising — determined that there was something missing from their community: an inclusive space that felt like home.
“We know that folks from historically marginalized communities don’t feel comfortable in a lot of spaces in Minneapolis,” Iverson said. The co-founders wanted to build a space designed for people from all walks of life in mind.
They started crowdfunding, raising $315,000 in less than four months. The Coven officially opened its doors on March 8, International Women’s Day. Within six months, the co-working space has amassed about 300 members, who choose to pay $200 per month or $2,200 annually for access to the space and exclusive events. (For every five full-paying members, the space gives one scholarship.)
The Coven, of course, isn’t for everyone. Men cannot apply to become members of the Coven. In fact, with the exception of a few public events, men are rarely allowed into the sanctuary at all.
It’s representative of a trend that has spread across the country: women-only co-working spaces. Since the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, workplaces targeted toward women have opened up in large metropolitan areas, such as New York and Los Angeles, and in smaller cities and towns, such as Gilbert, Ariz., and Edmond, Okla. Not all of these places ban men completely, but if they’re allowed in, they have limited access.
These co-working spaces typically attract entrepreneurs, those who work remotely, and people who are searching for a community. In some spaces, individuals are paying upward of $200 a month to operate in supportive environments where sexual harassment, sexual assault, racism and homophobia aren’t tolerated.
The Wing is probably the most well-known space for women. Less than two years after opening its first spot in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood, the co-working space and social club boasted more than 1,500 members at three New York locations, according to Business Insider. In November 2017, the Wing raised a $32 million Series B round of funding, and the lead investor was WeWork, a widely popular co-working space with 450 office locations around the world.
The Wing’s founders, Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan, later announced they would expand to other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and London. A Washington, D.C., location opened in April. The Wing, which declined to share up-to-date membership numbers for this story, has carved out a space for itself in the male-dominated world of venture capital, and it has been highly successful. Other co-working spaces have adopted somewhat different business models.
Felena Hanson founded Hera Hub in 2011, preceding this current wave of all-women co-working spaces. She self-funded the first location in San Diego and now licenses its model – which includes programming – to women around the world. Hera Hub has more than 400 members at six locations, and four more are in the works.
Like Hera Hub, many of the founders interviewed for this article self-funded their businesses. Others relied on buy-in from their communities.
Take Erin Teal Littlestar, a 35-year-old professional life and business coach. She’s the founder of the Perlene, a women-only co-working space in Portland, Ore. Littlestar didn’t want to take out loans or depend on investors. Instead, Littlestar said, she operated on a small budget: She used $12,000 of her personal savings, opened a credit card and enlisted friends to help her promote the space. They painted the Perlene and shopped for vintage items to decorate. Their goal? To create a “beautiful, luxurious space,” Littlestar said.
“I was pretty ambitious with it,” she said. To be successful, the Perlene “had to be cash positive after 90 days. Or else, it wasn’t going to work.” So far, her plan is working. The co-working space opened in December 2016 and is growing its membership, which now hovers around 75 women.
Littlestar started the Perlene because she wanted a sense of community. After all, it’s hard to make friends as an adult. People don’t always have a “sense of community and support,” Littlestar noted, when they don’t have families who live nearby or third spaces – like churches and community centers.
With the Perlene, Littlestar wanted to address that deep human need for community while creating a co-working space. She was reassured by women in the Portland area who craved a place similar to what she had been envisioning, where ambitious women could hang out and build authentic, meaningful relationships with one another.
The Perlene hosts yoga classes, craft nights, happy hours and more. Members are required to donate four hours of their time and talent annually to lead an event or teach a class.
At the Perlene, women learn from each other, much like they do at Bloom, a co-working space that opened in Las Vegas in October 2017. At Bloom, women readily share their connections with each other, co-founder Chelli Wolford said. Need a photographer for a workshop? If a Bloom member vocalizes that, three women will turn around with a name. Wolford’s ultimate goal is to help women professionally and personally, she said.
“Whether that’s providing resources, workshops or just a beautiful space to escape kids, husbands or dogs, I just want to make women’s lives better, period,” said Wolford, who has spent a large part of her career in male-dominated spaces, such as the military and the wireless and music industries.
“We just don’t worry about what you have to worry about in an office when you have men,” she added. “We have deep conversations here: Everything from how hard it is to be a parent to threesomes.”
Like many of the founders who shared their stories for this article, Wolford insists that Bloom is more than just a place where you’ll always have an outlet and where the WiFi is reliable. “It actually hurts my soul when people say it’s just a co-working space,” she said. It’s “more about community and connection.”
Numerous founders discussed their desire to be able to take up space amongst each other and avoid men who tend to take up too much room – physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Heni Kovacs, who founded Circle + Moon in Georgia last year, said the 2016 election and subsequent events marked a turning point for society. It became “loud and clear” that the world had been built by the patriarchy, she said.
“We’re realizing that the patriarchy is no longer the way to go,” Kovacs said. Now, more women are inserting themselves and taking the lead in various sectors, including politics and business. Women are demonstrating that they’re “more than capable,” she added.
When Kovacs and Amber Klunzinger, founder of the Collective in Oklahoma, first launched their respective businesses, people didn’t understand the concept of co-working.
“My landlord was like, ‘I don’t understand. We can do a shorter lease to make sure this is going to work out for you,’” said Klunzinger, who opened the Collective two years ago in Edmond. Kovacs got a similar reaction from potential members.
“People were looking at me like they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about,” Kovacs said. She eventually started to build membership by inviting people to the space so they could see the vision for themselves, in real life. Once potential members began to understand the purpose behind the co-working spaces, the Collective and Circle + Moon were able to get people on board.
It’s finally “getting to where it’s resonating and the message is sinking in,” Kovacs said.
Circle + Moon currently has 50 members, with hopes of growing. The Collective, which is relatively small, can hold up to 40 women, and Klunzinger usually averages between 25 and 30 members a month, she said. The business owner is passionate about giving members of the Collective financial flexibility, so she doesn’t offer an annual membership, which would lock people in for the year.
Klunzinger wanted the price point to be approachable and attainable, so she set her membership at $150 per month. Unlike the Wing — which costs $215 per month for access to one location and $250 for access to current and future locations — and a handful of spaces interviewed for this story, the Collective doesn’t have a scholarship program for members.
Some spaces offer traditional scholarships while others have trade systems in place to give access to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford a membership.
The Perlene has a “Judy on Duty” program. In exchange for a discounted membership, women can work as “hostesses”: They open and close the space and complete tasks like making coffee throughout the day. Additionally, women can apply to contribute a skill or trade in exchange for a partial membership fee.
Similarly, Hera Hub offers an ambassador program where people can gain membership by spending four hours per week working at their respective location. Ambassadors greet other members, assist the community manager and sign for mail, among other tasks.
While ownership of these co-working spaces remains largely white, many of the founders interviewed for this article boast diverse membership and are dedicated to inclusivity.
Wolford, the Bloom co-founder, said the diversity at her space happened organically.
“Here, there are women of color, women of all ages, from 20-year-olds to 50-year-olds,” she said. “And it’s good because we learn from each other, and we educate each other about life experience.”
At the Coven, founders said they thought about the diversity of its members from the space’s inception. West Steinman noted that they have products for all hair types and art from various communities in the Coven.
“It’s not just getting a diverse subset of members here,” she said, “but it’s about creating an environment that everybody feels great in and so that’s like creating inclusivity.”
Like Bloom, Circle + Moon and the Perlene, the Coven is interested in expanding. In Minneapolis, the Coven’s co-founders are trying to be as intentional as they were with their first space.
“I think that our mind is always going to be set on what the Coven means to us, which is to ‘do the most good,’ which is our motto,” West Steinman said. “We carry that into every single decision that we make and are we doing the most good for this community, for our broader community, which right now is the Twin Cities. I just hope that whatever we decide this grows into continues to have that kind of vibe and feeling.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this piece misstated that the Perlene’s membership fee is $250. The memberships range from $150 to $400.