Building Ethels Club is a radical act. While co-working spaces and social clubs are taking over the American workplace, none of today’s leading brands (WeWork, The Wing, Soho House, Industrious, The Riveter) are optimized to the needs, safety, or comfort of people of color. The dismal state of racial bias in (and beyond) tech is well-known — and it’s no surprise if you’ve spent time in an NYC WeWork. Lots of white dudes, to say the least.
People of color want — and deserve — space to relax, create, and collaborate.
Just as many skeptics questioned whether women really needed their own space when The Wing launched, critics will have lots of feelings about Ethels Club focusing on people of color. This skepticism only amplifies our excitement to open our first space in Brooklyn this November. Membership is already over-subscribed, with a waitlist of over 4,000 people. If this number seems surprising, think again: in New York City alone, 67% of residents identify as people of color. By 2040, there will be more people of color than women globally.
Think on that for a second.
Until Ethels, no overarching, beautifully-designed “third space” has surfaced to fill the void of gentrification in many neighborhoods. That’s why we built Ethels Club. As founder and CEO Naj Austin explains, Ethels Club was born to “create a vertical community of substance that becomes much larger than the brick and mortar spaces we will inhabit. We are positioning ourselves to be the voice, community and brand for all people of color.”
A huge part of this mission is leading by example — which is why we’re thrilled to announce our partnership with feminist author and activist Roxane Gay.
Gay invested in Ethels financially, and now sits on our advisory board.
Beyond being one of the best writers of the century, Gay offers a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial insight and general bad-assery. She belongs to a couple of social clubs, but was intrigued by the idea of a private space created by, and for, black people and people of color. Because community is everything to Ethels Club, we sat down with Gay and Austin to explore why this partnership is such a promising opportunity.
These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Naj Austin, on partnering with Roxane Gay, and Ethels Club’s future
Ethels: Since founding Ethels you’ve received many investment opportunities, with zero marketing spend. Why was Roxane Gay at the top of your list for potential investors?
Austin: Roxane exemplified so much of what we’re trying to build at Ethels Club. Creative, smart, interesting, unapologetic people who believe in the empowerment and advancement of people of color. It also seemed like a no-brainer if I was trying to send a signal of the type of cap-table I was hoping to build!
What role has Gay’s work and leadership played in your personal life, up to this point?
Roxane is one of my favorite authors. Bad Feminist changed my view of the world. I know that sounds dramatic but there were so many passages in that book that really made me think about who I am as a woman but also how I exist in the world. She’s shaped who I am in many ways as a black woman. To have her involved in Ethels Club is humbling, but also incredibly cool.
What role will Gay play in the development of Ethels?
She might be the busiest person I know; she has a new magazine, a book she’s writing, a podcast with Tressie McMillan, while also teaching as a visiting professor at Yale. We see her being involved with developing our programming and helping us shape the messaging and positioning of the company. She will also play a huge role when we open our LA location.
Beyond physical space to unite and collaborate, what less-visible benefits will Ethels Club provide its members, that are not presently being met elsewhere?
We are positioning the company as a cultural anchor and intentional wellness space that centers POC life and experiences.
We have thought about every touch point through the user experience — through interior design, decor, programming and events — everything. We’re offering something many people of color can’t find anywhere else — a safe space specifically designed with them in mind.
Why are brand and cultural partnerships an essential element of Ethels cultural and business future?
I think we’re living in an interesting time of “diversity and inclusion.” As with every corporate trend, I am skeptical and jaded and bank a little on the fact that most of these larger corporations will get most of this wrong. Ethels Club is a way for these brands to market and connect with POC in an authentic way, while our company stands as gatekeeper. We implore companies to realize that this isn’t about tackling a trend of today — this is something we all need to work towards for the rest of our lives. We want to imagine the world as if it were always inclusive, and any brand or corporation who also believes in that, will have the ability to work with us to make it a reality.
What’s the long-term bet you’re making on Ethels?
Ethels Club will be the primary channel for major brands to gain exclusive and necessary access to people of color.
Roxane Gay, on her partnership with Austin and Ethels Club’s Future
Ethels: What about Naj stood out to you most, as a founder?
Gay: Naj is ambitious and has a big, bold vision. I like to work with people who have a lot of vision.
Why is Ethels Club a necessary entity in the increasingly crowded co-working and social club space?
This space is increasingly crowded. Clearly people are hungry for community. For people of color, I feel like that desire for community and workspace is even more pronounced and sometimes, we want/need/crave that sense of community without having to educate white people or tolerate microaggressions. Ethels Club will, hopefully, provide a haven, much in the way that The Wing, of which I am a member, does for women.
Beyond physical, safe space to unite and collaborate, what less-visible benefits and needs will Ethels Club provide its members, that are not presently being met elsewhere?
Ethels Club will provide invaluable opportunities for organizing, networking, and fellowship. Beyond all that, it will provide people with a chic, interesting place to work or have a drink or just sit and read. Especially in NY, where there is so little personal space, Ethels Club will provide some much needed breathing room.
Naj believes that brand and cultural partnerships will be a significant element of the club’s future. What do you think about partnerships?
Partnerships are important because they will afford Ethels Club the much needed support they need as they enter this competitive space. It will help communicate to potential members, members, and investors that Ethels Club is being taken seriously. Both of the clubs I belong to benefit greatly from partnerships that offer members interesting perks and provide an added sense of legitimacy. Ethels Club deserves such benefits as much as any other social club.
Many people question whether the co-working space can provide venture-scale returns. What do these people miss, in your opinion, when they overlook Ethels Club as a high-yield investment opportunity?
These people miss how popular these social clubs are. The clubs I belong to are always packed; too packed, frankly. Clearly, the concept works. If investors want to miss out on a great opportunity, that is certainly… a choice.
What’s the long-term bet you’re making on Ethels Club?
In ten years, I see Ethels Club in major cities all across the country — ideally, Los Angeles, Oakland, Atlanta, DC, Chicago, Boston, and maybe Miami. These spaces will always provide a place for people of color creatives and professionals to gather, collaborate, find harbor, and those things are timeless.
If you have any message for people that doubt the potential success of Ethels Club, what is it, and why?
I would tell them that the bigotry of low expectations is a hell of a thing to get out from under but I hope they find a way go do so.
These interviews were conducted by Leah Fessler, writer, investor, and Ethels Club advisory board member.
Ethels Club is the first private membership club and workspace designed for and by people of color. Our first location will be in Brooklyn, New York.