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The women-led business whose real business is more women-led businesses

Phoebe Unterman and Kai Ryssdal Oct 25, 2018
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The Wing's newly-minted co-working space in San Francisco.
The Wing

A report from American Express earlier this year showed that, on the average day, 1,821 businesses are started by women in this country. There’s a company, The Wing, that is hurrying to create spaces to support all these women entrepreneurs. Their main product is women-focused co-working spaces. Currently located in New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco — with many more to come in the next year — The Wing is open for membership to trans and cis women as well as people who identify as non-binary and gender non-conforming. 

Last year they raised $32 million in their Series B round of fundraising. It was one of the biggest Series B rounds raised by women founders in recent memory, and it brought them to more than $42 million in investment. Twenty billion of that came from WeWork, one of their competitors.

Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal sat down with The Wing’s CEO and co-founder Audrey Gelman. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So give me the the virtual radio tour, if you would. If I walk into one of The Wing locations at like 4:00 in the afternoon, what am I going to see? 

Audrey Gelman: You’re going to see hundreds of women on their laptops working, taking meetings, on conference calls, having coffee dates, starting businesses. It’s pretty extraordinary.

Ryssdal: So these are not small little spaces. These are large convening spaces, I suppose, in a sense, right?

Gelman: That’s correct. Our largest flagship in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City is going to be 20,000 square feet.

Ryssdal: Wow, you’re almost like a big box. I mean, that’s crazy.

Gelman: (laughing) We’re still, we’re still, we’re still small.

Ryssdal: OK, maybe not that big.

The Wing San Francisco.

Gelman: But we have big plans. 

Ryssdal: Let’s talk about that little bit. Give me, first of all, I guess, the elevator pitch. You’ve gone out and you’ve gotten VC funding. You’ve been very successful at getting venture capitalists to invest in your vision. What’s the pitch? What’s the elevator pitch? 

Audrey Gelman, co-founder and CEO of The Wing.

Gelman: Sure. I mean, The Wing was inspired by history, really. At the turn of the 20th century and the sort of late 19th century, there were hundreds of women’s clubs. They were a huge part of the suffrage movement and the overall advancement of women in this country. But they kind of died out. Our idea was to resurrect them for modern women. But the difference between women 100 years ago and women today is that women today work. 

Ryssdal: Tell me about your clientele, would you, your customers. What do we know about them? I mean you just introduced child care, right, so clearly some are parents of small children.

Gelman: Yes. We have 6,000 members of The Wing and we survey them constantly. About a quarter of them have kids, and that’s a growing population. My co-founder Lauren has a 9 month old and watching her balance growing The Wing and being a new mom has been an eye-opening experience for me. So yeah, we’re trying to always grow with our members.

A sneak-peek at the first Little Wing, the in-house childcare facility that will be rolled out at The Wing’s flagship location in the New York City neighborhood SoHo in December, 2018. The Wing is the first major network of co-working spaces to offer childcare. Babysitting services will be offered in two-hour blocks at comparable rates to other childcare services on the market, according to The Wing.

Ryssdal: Are you making money yet? Are you profitable?

Gelman: (laughs) Um… 

Ryssdal: You know, you come on the show, you’re going to get asked that question.

Gelman: Yeah, listen, we’re… The traction, you know, from tapping into needs that have not been addressed and have really been neglected from women business owners… You know, it’s the right thing to do and it’s also, you know, it’s a great business model.

Ryssdal: Let me back you up for a minute to the venture capital part of this. You are a woman running a woman-focused business. Venture capital is neither of those things. What was that like for you, going to wherever you went — Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park or wherever — and making this pitch? Were VCs recept … well, they were receptive but I guess, what was the reception you got is the question.

Gelman: Yeah, the statistics of how many women-founded companies receive venture capital funding … they’re really abysmal. Only about 3 percent of all venture capital dollars go into businesses founded by women. As a woman going out to raise tens of millions of dollars, it’s incredibly intimidating. It’s intimidating to know those statistics. It’s intimidating to walk into a room full of men in suits around a boardroom table. Our initial seed round was very challenging, just because there wasn’t anything that existed like this, and we didn’t have proof of concept yet. And there were, frankly, a lot of men who just said, like, I just don’t get it. You know, I just don’t get the product.

Ryssdal: Do you imagine, do you foresee a day — and I grant you that it feels like we’re a long way from it now, with #MeToo and all that — but do you foresee a day where this company is not needed, where your services aren’t required anymore because society has progressed?

A conference room at San Francisco’s newly-minted The Wing space is named after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who accused then-Supreme Court prospect Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

Gelman: (laughing) You know, I think that that’s the goal in some ways. Let’s put it this way: From a very young age, you know, even if it’s not as overt as something like #MeToo, women learn to shrink themselves and to sort of take up less space. So we believe that they’re getting these cues, you know, in big ways and small ways, and that it’s so important for spaces like The Wing to exist.

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