Revolutionary all-women workspace The Wing comes to London

As the first European outpost opens, Jo Ellison finds out why so many women are flocking to the club

From near right: chief partnerships officer Melanie Altarescu, chief financial officer Diedra Nelson and co-founders Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan
From near right: chief partnerships officer Melanie Altarescu, chief financial officer Diedra Nelson and co-founders Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan | Image: Weston Wells

A visit to The Wing, in New York’s SoHo district, one afternoon in early September, and there wasn’t a free seat in the house: every corner chair, table, meeting room, phone booth and plug socket in the 20,000sq ft loft space was occupied. By women.

Women were taking calls. They were holding meetings with other women, or tapping on their MacBooks in the lounge. They were eating kale salads and snacks from the on-site café, which is catered by women-founded bakeries and served by women with granola-wholesome smiles. In the bathrooms, which are decorated with empowering slogans in fonts one might associate with 1970s shampoos, women were applying make-up, showering and fixing their hair. Many had come in to switch outfits as they shuttled back and forth around the city. In the nursing room, mothers could express and refrigerate their milk beneath wallpaper covered with a feminist print.

In the events space, 500 women waited for the actress Jennifer Lopez, who was scheduled to do a panel discussion about her new film, Hustlers. Among the subjects for discussion: being a woman in a male-dominated industry, ageing and how to balance a career and family life. A quick glimpse at the events schedule listed a sewing workshop at the weekend. Too benign? Moira Donegan (an “angry feminist writer”, according to her Twitter feed) and Roberta Kaplan, who co-founded the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, were down to discuss free speech and defamation in the era of #MeToo.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at The Wing
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at The Wing | Image: Tory Williams

Some males were present – members can sign them in as guests – but on this day the only chaps around were babes in arms or toddlers playing in the crèche.

Mention The Wing, the all-women work hub co-founded in 2016 by Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan, and you tend to get a few reactions. It’s a hothouse for femo-nazis. It’s an affront to gender-blind thinking. It’s a sorority for cool girls. Or a sanctuary for snowflakes. Both men and, often, women have pretty spicy points of view.

But for many women who have spent their working lives in offices designed for men, it’s a millennial-pink Valhalla. No detail has been missed. The air temperature is set to a balmy 71-73 degrees Fahrenheit (women’s productivity has been proven to diminish when the thermostat dips much below 72); the chairs and desks and tables, 80 per cent of which are designed in-house, have been scaled to accommodate a smaller frame. The bathrooms overflow with products, designed to cater to all different skin and hair types. Children are welcome, so long as they don’t scream.

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And people are flocking in. The Wing now counts 10,000 among its members, each paying £170-£240 a month, depending on how much access they want to its eight clubs, and membership is expected to hit 15,000 by year’s end. A further three clubs are due this year. This month will see Europe’s first Wing opening in London’s Fitzrovia, with plans already to open another London site next year. Two more are about to open in New York (taking the total there to five) and a Paris branch is in the works. While the company doesn’t share revenues, it does say the business has seen triple-digit growth year on year since opening and each space is profitable – with healthy margins. It’s a growth that is outpacing other shared-space work clubs, such as WeWork, which charges from £350 per month. And it’s comparable to many more traditional members’ clubs, such as The Conduit, which charges £150 per month (with a joining fee of £850). Plus, you know, there are tampons and free coffee too.

In its official literature, The Wing describes itself as “a space designed for women with a women’s focused mission”, which welcomes members and guests “regardless of their perceived gender or gender identity”. But that’s confusing. And so I ask Audrey Gelman to summarise The Wing. “It’s a community of ambitious, brainy women,” says the co-founder and CEO over lunch at Spring restaurant, at Somerset House, in London. “And there are ambitious, brainy women all over the world.”

A tiny brunette with the smooth perfection of an American Girl doll, Gelman exudes competence and confidence in equal measure, but she’s an unusual study. Raised in New York, by liberal parents (her mother is a feminist and psychologist), she emerged into public life in 2008 while working as a press aide for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. But she is also familiar to many as one of New York’s privileged bohemian elite. A childhood friend of Lena Dunham – you might remember her as the excruciatingly irritating, headband-wearing Audrey in the TV show Girls – she was the main inspiration for the character of Marnie in Dunham’s celebrated drama. She studied at the private liberal arts college Oberlin and dated the fashion photographer Terry Richardson, who was implicated in the #MeToo scandal but has not been charged. Last year she married Ilan Zechory, the co-founder of Genius, a music startup, in Detroit. When we meet, she is the most magnificently pregnant person I’ve ever seen.

The café at The Wing Boston
The café at The Wing Boston | Image: Tory Williams

“We call it the warm, fuzzy feeling,” says Gelman of the club’s unique appeal. “I think, as a woman, you’re constantly taking care of everyone else in your life and solving problems. But at The Wing there’s this feeling that you walk in and everyone’s taking care of you. Someone tweeted the other day: ‘I just sneezed and 12 people said, “Bless you”.’ You know what I mean?! You can’t put that into a business plan.”

With its emphasis on kindness, and aura of chummy sisterhood, I’m fascinated to see how the venture will play in London, a city powered by sarcasm, reserve and giving half an ass. “There are obviously cultural differences,” agrees Gelman of the transatlantic crossing. “But we run a lot of focus groups to get a sense of what people are looking for. And, for London, what came out was an appreciation for American egalitarianism: how it was extremely racially diverse – diverse in every sense, in fact – and how there isn’t really a space like that for women right now.”

Diversity is key at The Wing, which is selective about membership and will later this year launch a scholarship scheme offering a year’s free membership to women in lower-income employment such as education, advocacy and social services. “I think the diversity is definitely a point of distinction and something that people are really excited about, both in terms of background and in terms of profession. We’re always really excited about women who are in banking, or who work in agriculture, women in more esoteric fields, because I think the danger is that everyone’s in media or fashion and then what’s challenging about that? We loved the first group of women that we started with in New York because we had a violinist in the Metropolitan Opera sitting next to a UX designer, sitting next to someone running for city council. I think the most interesting rooms are those where everyone does something different, and people want to play an active role in giving back.”

Audrey Gelman
Audrey Gelman | Image: Weston Wells

As well as having a long-established culture of club membership, London suffers, like all big urban centres, with issues of isolation and a lack of community. The average age of Wing members is 35, a quarter of them are freelance and live on their phones. For many members, then, The Wing is far more than a workspace.

“I think it’s hard to create an environment that’s conducive to people actually opening up and becoming friends. But we’ve created a warm atmosphere where people can let their guard down,” says Gelman. “We also have the app, so you can find people who have similar interests and reach out to each other. We have members who have planned a trip to Disneyland together, and others who have started businesses.”

At a time when 22 per cent of young adults in the UK describe themselves as lonely, The Wing’s focus on connectivity and community makes solid business sense. “I think people join for identity reasons because they want to belong,” says Gelman. “It’s a by-product of the isolation that people have. Everyone’s experiencing life through a feed on their smartphone, and I think it’s very alienating. In American society we’ve always had, obviously, the church and the synagogue and these places, but we’ve also had the junior league and the girl scouts, things that you became part of. So, I would say The Wing is very similar to a women’s college. At college you make friends, you make relationships and you have similar interests. And then you leave college and go into the big bad world of work and there aren’t that many opportunities to make new friends, unless you go to SoulCycle [the boutique gym class that claims cult-like devotees]. We noticed that and thought that’s something you can replicate. But, yes, I reckon it’s a by-product of both identity and wanting to make connections that aren’t just through a screen.”

Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi at The Wing
Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi at The Wing | Image: Hillary Jeanne Photography

To that end, The Wing sounds like a sorority queen’s dream, each summer offering a summer camp at which 500 members frolic in the forest and “do nothing more than let loose and have fun”. Which all sounds very hair braiding and campfires. But being nice has other benefits also. The Wing app offers a job site whereby members can both advise and recruit other members, and its hit rate for new business is growing every day. Nicole Gibbons started her direct-to-consumer paint business from The Wing. “She made her first hire [a web designer] through The Wing,” says Gelman. “Then she raised almost $2m. And there’s only a handful of women aged under 50 in the US who have raised more than $1m.” Gibbons has since earned a special plaque.

Gelman is a former aide for the Democrat party, and her politics are all but written on the walls of The Wing. But does she feel obligated to make the club political? “Originally I didn’t want to voice that on our members,” says Gelman, who launched the business not long after Trump’s election. “But I think everyone was just completely consumed by what was happening in the country, and we are always very responsive to what people ask for, so it became a centre for people to organise. We’ve had a number of members running for office. One member, 32 years old, ran against a powerful member of the New York State Senate and beat him, so that was really exciting. She basically made all her fundraising calls at The Wing and made that decision to run there. And we obviously have a lot of women from the political world come speak to our members. I do think that American women in cities tend to skew Democratic politically,” she adds. “And those are our women, especially young ones. But we do have members who are Republicans.”

Despite the rhetoric, she’s cautious of talking politics without delivering results. “There are a lot of brands that are trying to market to women right now,” she continues. “There’s been this acceleration of activity and consciousness among women. But a lot of companies that are trying to exploit or capitalise on that won’t touch politics with a 10ft pole. I think it’s important, to have any kind of credibility, to be able to engage with these questions – and I feel very lucky that some of the great women of the 21st century have walked through our doors and that many of them see our members as people who are important and impactful.”

Inside The Wing West Hollywood
Inside The Wing West Hollywood | Image: Madeline Tolle

Then again, The Wing has had its share of controversy. Even since opening three years ago, the subject of gender identification has become a lightning rod for debate. And last year the club had to drop its no-men rule after a 53-year-old man brought a gender-discrimination lawsuit seeking damages of up to $12m against the startup. How far has Gelman had to recalibrate her ideas about feminism in that time?

“I think there have always been right-wing men who hate the idea and are very threatened by the idea of women’s spaces,” says Gelman, of an attitude that she traces back to the late 19th century when women’s clubs began to burgeon and were described by some as a danger to the American home. “But I also think that everyone is grappling with a lot of very fair questions. From the first day we opened we had members who were transwomen, and we’re very inclusive,” says Gelman. “And that has expanded to having a large population of members who identify as gender non-binary. I think any brand or educational institution has to pay attention to these things and make sure that they’re making choices that are in line with their values. But you have to be pretty steadfast in who you are. Yes, you need to remain open-minded and open-hearted to the conversations that you’re having, integrating and incorporating different things as you go, but you can’t be ping-ponging based on what people are talking about that day. We have to say who we are and this is who we serve, and that hasn’t really changed.”

And the world is still so very male centric. Gelman founded the first Wing with Kassan after raising $2.4m. They knew within a week that they would open a second branch because they had 8,000 names on a waiting list. But raising capital for growth was hard. “The demand way outpaced what we predicted – every metric was just completely off the charts,” she explains. “But at the beginning it was really difficult. You encounter a lot of bad behaviour, and people take advantage of the power dynamic when you need capital. Once you have proof of concept it becomes a lot easier. But at the very beginning there was a lot of ‘this will never work’ or ‘it’s a small, cute mom and pop business’. They couldn’t see the scalability, and the power of the female consumers. Now, I think people are starting to get it and become more bullish. But you still see venture funds that have invested in more guys named John than women, so you’re up against a lot. There’s a real old boys’ network in Silicon Valley, the PayPal Mafia and all these groups of guys who started companies and sold them and give money to their friends. In our most recent fundraising round we raised $75m and it was all from women.”

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Current investors include women partners in Silicon Valley and the US women’s soccer team. The actress Kerry Washington, who was so instrumental in the Time’s Up movement, is an investor, and so is Roberta Kaplan. “But the majority was raised by women partners at venture capital firms,” says Gelman.

Unless the world changes dramatically, it seems more women will need The Wing, which still remains a tiny pink bubble in a very grey world. “You go to midtown or Manhattan or the Financial District, or the masonic hall I walked past yesterday in London, and it’s all men in suits,” says Gelman. “You forget that most law firms are a sea of men. You have places in media or fashion enclaves where there’s women in leadership, but it’s very uncommon. We have a lot of members who are the only woman partner, and they really do feel like The Wing is a place to suit up to do battle. It’s where they come to recharge, get confidence and get ideas about how to then go back into that world and not get run over.”

At the very least, while suiting up to do the battle, it’s got you covered when you sneeze.

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