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The Wing Has $118 Million in Funding, Superfans Like Meryl Streep, and Plenty of Skeptics. It's Just Getting Started - Eleanor's Place

Audrey Gelman has made the Wing's women-focused shared office spaces into a buzzy club of feminine empowerment built on inclusivity--and, perhaps, exclusivity. Change can be messy. But this is a new kind of company.

Republished from Inc.

To enter 52 Mercer Street, a five-story building in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, on a Wednesday this past June, a visitor had to shimmy through a gaggle of paparazzi and three bouncers issuing wristbands and whisking ticketed guests to a single elevator to the top floor. Inside, the co-working space-slash-women’s club the Winghad been transformed into an assembly hall. There was a murmur of anticipation among the crowd of roughly 400, most of whom contentedly sat for nearly an hour under instructions not to rise from their assigned seats. It was barely 8:30 a.m.

At 9:30, Audrey Gelman, six months pregnant and wearing a button-up jumpsuit the color of porcelain, took the mic. Facing a sea of women, with a massive bookcase dripping with greenery behind her and light from an atrium pouring down on her, Gelman finally spoke: “I feel like a schmuck doing this.”

It was a charming bit of self-deprecation from the 32-year-old CEO, who co-founded her New York City-based company with Lauren Kassan in 2016 and has raised $117.5 million in venture capital. The Wing has eight locations across the U.S. and plans for three more before the end of the year and another nine around the globe in 2020. It will hold some 2,000 members-only events in 2019, lots of them featuring A-list guests from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, professional sports, and politics. So Gelman was hardly uneasy in the spotlight–subtly working the crowd and setting a calming, we’re-all-on-the-same-level-here tone. She took a breath and spoke into the microphone: “Meryl Streep!”

Streep did not appear; instead, Reese Witherspoon strode out from a dark hallway into the massive room. “Reese Witherspoon!” Gelman corrected herself, and continued introducing the stars of HBO’s Big Little Lies, including Laura Dern and Nicole Kidman. Finally, Streep emerged. She sat down and gazed up at the ceiling of industrial windows. “Good lighting,” she said, performing a mock hair flip.

The discussion that followed touched on domestic violence, Hollywood’s lack of women storytellers, modern motherhood, #MeToo, and the genesis of Big Little Lies, a collaboration between Kidman and Witherspoon. “I am of a generation that waited to be asked to dance. I’m so admiring of you,” Streep said of her fellow actors. “The world deserves to hear from you, and you, and all of us,” she continued, bringing the audience into the circle of admiration. The hundreds of women–New York City entrepreneurs, freelancers, and others who each pay more than $2,000 a year for access to the Wing–erupted in whistles and applause.

Everything a member of the Wing touches has been selected for its Wing-iness, from the art by women, transgender, and nonbinary artists to the jelly on the toast in the café.

Streep, of course, is a master at connecting with audiences. But so is Gelman, who has a fan base that might make some stars jealous. The business she has created is, at first glance, not so different from most co-working places. It leases expensive real estate, adds Instagram-friendly design and some office accoutrements, and then subleases it out, in tiny chunks. To the women it attracts, though, the Wing is something far more powerful than a pastel WeWork for ladies.

“Women were looking for a place where their voices were the dominant ones, and what was going on in the culture made it urgent,” says Colleen DeCourcy, the co-president and chief creative officer of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy and a board member of the Wing. The brand emerged at a pivotal time for women’s issues, she notes, when Donald Trump was entering the White House, women were organizing marches, and sexual-assault scandals were proliferating. Especially in blue-leaning major urban centers, an unabashedly feminine space that felt safe and empowering played like a proudly defiant middle finger.

The Wing expects to have 15,000 members by the end of this year–a nice number, but modest considering the hype. What’s more telling: The Wing has nearly 500,000 followers across social media, few of whom live in cities with Wing locations. These are fans. Of an office. In a city where they don’t live. Or, more accurately, they are acolytes of what the Wing has come to represent.

But if the Wing has become a symbol of the times, it is also a business, and one with a huge sum of venture capital from investors who expect lightning-fast growth. The Wing is often compared with WeWork, which in nine years has opened more than 525 locations and signed up 500,000 members–and which managed to lose $1.9 billion in 2018. That was all in a growth economy; what happens when the next downturn ripples through the real estate and job markets remains to be seen for WeWork and its ilk–as WeWork warned in its August IPO filing. Gelman contends that her plan “is not about blitz-scaling. It’s about creating quality and meaning and doing everything with real intention.” That’s why, she says, each Wing location so far is profitable. But reaching the next level of growth–and sustaining it in shaky times–requires a whole new flight plan.

The Wing doesn’t rent white-box real estate in random office towers; instead, it leases the likes of its new Manhattan headquarters, a four-story neo-Italian Renaissance building that once housed a women’s hospital wing. Its first club opened in a historic district called Ladies’ Mile, just off Park Avenue, and earlier this year the company tried to land a 17th-century limestone building in Paris that was the former home of Madame de Montespan, a mistress of Louis XIV who reputedly banned all men from her property.

Inside every Wing location, the foundational color is blush pink. In Washington, D.C., the floors are pink. In Boston, a sweeping staircase is pink. The SoHo space features all the elements Wing members (and would-be members) recognize: Long banquettes line the walls, punctuated by terrazzo-topped, brass-footed tables perfectly sized for a MacBook. Jewel-tone velvet couches form mini living-room setups in the open space; high-backed red armchairs create semiprivate workspaces. No locations are identical; each is a variation on the theme.

COURTESY THE WING

Everything a member of the Wing touches or sees has been selected for its Wing-iness, from the art by women, transgender, and nonbinary artists to the jelly for the toast at the in-house cafés, sourced from women-owned businesses. (Each location of the Wing has a café called the Perch. The “Fork the Patriarchy Bowl” is a big seller.) The Wing’s “beauty rooms” have small brass trays featuring rotating casts of beauty products made by women-owned companies. Less visibly, the Wing hires women-owned contracting firms: Elaine Construction in Boston; a car service called Valet of the Dolls in Los Angeles.

Gelman’s fashion choices are similarly intentional, a reflection of the kind of diverse feminine power scene she’s cultivating. One day, she’ll wear Vans and vintage denim overalls and show off the tattoo on her right triceps that reads “Killa”; another, she’ll seem poised for high tea in ruffled white Celine mules and a pink gingham top.

Even the members are curated; they have to apply. Early on, the Wing asked prospects: “Which TV show do you hate that everyone else loves?” Today’s application asks for dream dinner-party guests, and includes a longstanding question: How have applicants supported the advancement of women? How the answers are assessed is a mystery to anyone outside the company.

One result of this intense attention to detail is a community custom-built to rave about itself on social media. “This woman just busted out a protractor while eating avocado toast @the_wing and I’m here for this kind of badass,” reads a recent tweet. Another: “Just sneezed @the_wing and 7 women simultaneously said bless you this place rips.” After her book-tour event in New York, best-selling novelist and journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner tweeted praise for the Wing several times. “It’s everything a woman-person needs in a city,” she wrote.

But for all those who adore the Wing, there are skeptics and outright haters. Is the company’s popular merchandise ($16 socks that read “self-funded”; $30 totes that read “taking up space”) simply selling branded feminism? Are the company’s events truly inclusive, its founders and members an inspiring group to rub elbows with, or a sales tactic “capitalizing on access,” as Washingtonian wrote? Is it a place for women to escape the male gaze and get real work done in chairs where their feet actually touch the ground, or an escape from reality?

Carrie Goldberg was skeptical of the Wing, until the moment she walked into one. “I almost cried. It was a Garden of Eden to me.”

Roughly 25 percent of Wing members consider themselves entrepreneurs or freelancers. Nicole Gibbons built her upstart paint company, Clare, out of the Wing in SoHo. When Sierra Tishgart and Maddy Moelis began working on their cookware company, Great Jones, they signed up for Wing memberships. And for these women, the Wing really is the kind of professionally uplifting community that Gelman envisions. One day, Tishgart and Moelis were discussing how difficult it was to find a lawyer; another member introduced herself and referred them to her counsel. Gelman began offering them advice too, including how to select investors.

Carrie Goldberg had founded her own law firm in Brooklyn, working with clients who’d been sexually assaulted or were the victims of revenge pornography. A hard-ass feminist, she was skeptical of the Wing’s membership model and uber-femme aesthetic–until the moment she walked into the company’s Brooklyn location. “I almost cried,” she told me. She was struck by the diversity of women working in a calming, warm environment. “It was a Garden of Eden to me.”

Before the Wing was the Wing, it was Refresh Club, a tertiary space for women between home and work, or working out and a meeting, or any spin-the-workday-wheel combo of things. Gelman began talking about her idea in 2015 as a fix for sneaking into a coffee-shop bathroom to change clothes or tidy up her makeup, which she’d experienced as “dehumanizing.”

She had earned society-page notoriety by this time; she’d been childhood and college buddies with Girls creator Lena Dunham and became the inspiration for the Girlscharacter Marnie. She’d had a red-carpet-traipsing stint on the arm of controversial photographer Terry Richardson. Downtown It Girl was a side hustle, though. In her day job, she was a political operative. After working as a press aide for Hillary Clinton, she signed on to help a lesser-known candidate defeat Eliot Spitzer in the 2013 New York City comptroller race. The New York Times wrote a profile of her that dubbed her a “political ingénue.”

By 2015, as she mulled the idea for Refresh, Gelman turned to her extensive contacts for help. Glossier founder Emily Weiss gave her a business-book reading list. The founders of sustainable luxury brand Cuyana, Shilpa Shah and Karla Gallardo, sent her their list of investor contacts. Gelman then raised about $1 million in seed funding from Julie Rice (SoulCycle), Harvey Spevak (Equinox), and Whitney Wolfe Herd (Bumble), among others.

At the time, Gelman was dating Ilan Zechory, a co-founder of lyrics-annotation company Genius (who’s now her husband). Zechory advised her to find a co-founder. In the course of taking every meeting anyone suggested, for money or for a partner, she met the son of Michael Kassan, founder of the consultancy MediaLink. Instead of investing, he introduced her to his wife, Lauren Kassan, who was a business-development executive at the startup ClassPass. Over coffee, the two women hit it off.

In an early email to Gelman, Kassan imagined a vision broader than mere heel-change pit stop: She proposed the venture be more of a community-building space for women, where they could set up their laptops and work for the day–or nosh and network. To be sure, most co-working places capitalize on the idea of community, but Gelman and Kassan were flipping that script and thinking about community as the primary purpose.

Setting out to raise the next million (New York City real estate is expensive, especially when you trick it out), the pair were advised by an older woman to bring along a man to “de-risk” the deal for investors. They declined–and turned Gelman’s $1 million into a $2.4 million investment round anyway. Kassan started scouting locations.

Gelman got to work defining the company’s mission and seeding the crowd it might attract. She hired the top branding agency Pentagram, whose clients have included Citibank and Saks Fifth Avenue. An all-women team there created the Wing’s look and feel, including that “polarizing color for women,” as Pentagram wrote (yes, pink). Pentagram also suggested renaming the operation. The Wing refers to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, with the twist that women need more than a room–they need an entire wing.

Gelman’s network helped with initial buzz. She sent invitations and welcome boxes to the powerful women she knew or idolized. Natasha Lyonne, Tina Brown, Dunham, Weiss, and model and Transparent actor Hari Nef would be among the founding members of its 3,500-square-foot penthouse club in the Flatiron neighborhood. It wasn’t just good publicity and status seeking. Gelman says they each paid for a $200-a-month membership.

Since the Wing’s launch, arguments against its focus on women have persisted, even as the market has thoroughly validated the idea. On the most basic level, critics have argued that a centuries-long history of discriminatory clubs that excluded women was no justification for pulling a 180. A 2018 headline in The New York Timespondered whether the Wing was “discriminating in a bad way.” The New York City Commission on Human Rights opened an investigation.

When I asked a Wing spokesperson how the company responded to the investigation, and to explain under what circumstances men were now permitted, she leaned forward intensely–and evaded the question: “We have never asked someone’s gender identity on any application. Cis women are not the only people who have suffered gender oppression,” she said, using the term for people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. The truth is, when the Wing started, the only people allowed in–save the occasional delivery guy or Secret Service agent assigned to Hillary Clinton–were women and those who identified as transgender or nonbinary. But since the 2018 investigation, the club has tweaked some of its language, especially around guests, each of whom is now “they” rather than “she.” There’s a new homepage disclaimer: “The Wing is a diverse community open to all.” (The commission closed its investigation in 2019).

Which is to say, as the Wing has begun to grow up, it has become just a bit more inclusive­–and, well, more lawsuit-proof. But then there are the critics who say the Wing just caters to the well-heeled. A Wing membership costs $185 to $250 per month, with a full-year commitment. That’s at least $200 less per month than at any WeWork in Manhattan, but the difference in monthly dues can evaporate quickly when you consider all the add-on costs at the Wing. Unlike other co-working spaces, the Wing prohibits outside food and drink–and lunch at the Perch can easily run $14. An after-work can of rosé, about two glasses’ worth, is $25. Child care services are also extra; reserving a conference room at the San Francisco location costs $50 an hour. Many Wing members don’t use the space as their daily office but more as a nice retreat when they need it. A club.

When I brought up the Wing’s whiff of exclusivity to Gelman, she scoffed: “I don’t think of it as refined or nice. We’re all familiar with what luxury branding is. The Wing is something that hasn’t been seen before.” Sure. But whether its novelty lies in radical inclusivity or a new kind of woke-luxe lifestyle is in the eye of the beholder.

Gelman considers her time in politics to have been basic training for navigating such tricky shoals–and for building a fast-growing company that now has 175 employees. “You learn to triage efficiently, put out fires, have a message, raise money, and you have to create a following,” she says.

Kassan remains the steady hand of the operation–manager, budgeter, and Gelman’s frequent reality check. “I fly into the solar system, and she keeps me weighted down to earth,” Gelman says. Over the past two years, the co-founders have surrounded themselves with skilled executives from the likes of SoulCycle, Airbnb, Snap, and Casper. The result is an all-women executive team. (The Wing employs a total of six men.)

While aiming to nearly double the Wing’s real estate footprint annually, the team has also begun to focus on other ways of scaling its community. A women’s conference called Strictly Business will premiere in New York in February, and there Gelman and Kassan will unveil their most ambitious new venture. Over the past year, Gelman revealed to Inc., the company has quietly built a software-development team of close to 30 people to overhaul its membership app, which members of the physical spaces currently use for things like booking conference rooms and events. Beginning next year, the app will also offer a digital Wing membership to women everywhere. The cost of a subscription remains unclear, but the app is being designed with the look and feel of the clubs. Digital members will be able to post and find jobs and connect with one another. As they do at brick-and-mortar locations, they will have to apply for access, which the company says will ensure a “professionally accomplished, pre-vetted” network. Gelman and Kassan hope the number of digital members will eventually eclipse the physical ones.

“The world is changing. And sometimes it’s hard to slow down and say, ‘Well, this is different. This hasn’t happened before.’ “

The company says the revenue diversification will also help recession-proof the business. But a paid social-networking app–even a great one–might be the kind of discretionary expense that people drop in a downturn. In any case, the move will expand the Wing’s competitive set from co-working spaces such as WeWork to LinkedIn and, notably, Bumble Bizz, run by Wing investor and Gelman friend Wolfe Herd.

Ever the politician, Gelman marvels at the possibilities she might unlock with the combination of physical and digital networks. “How quickly could you build advocacy and exert pressure around issues that women care about, when you can activate a global community?” she asks.

This past January, in the bathroom of the Wing’s corporate headquarters, Gelman took a pregnancy test. A few minutes later, she texted Kassan, who had her first child a year earlier, “Get in here.” Gelman’s immediate reaction to the test result was closer to shock than joy: “I can’t be pregnant. I have so much to do.”

Part of having an entirely women-run company is that pregnancies and child care aren’t occasional HR blips–they’re constant. As I reported this article, one executive-team member was out on maternity leave and at least three were pregnant. Scheduling meetings was at times challenging–but they happened. Nickey Skarstad, the VP heading up development of the app, will be out on parental leave until shortly before its launch. “The world is changing,” Gelman says. “And sometimes it’s hard to slow down and say, ‘Well, this is different. This hasn’t happened before.’ ”

On the morning of July 11, Gelman had trouble finding something to wear. “Nothing fits anymore,” she said. She put on denim overalls and steeled herself for what would be a five-hour board meeting–her last as CEO before maternity leave. After the meeting, she telephoned me.

After months of morning sickness, including the time when she was about to go onstage at a summit held by one of her venture capital investors and instead ran to the rear of the tent to vomit, Gelman had begun embracing the messy reality of her life stage. She’d stopped taking redeye flights, stopped doing work calls late on Sunday nights. And, she said, “I had this realization: The way to make my team and my employees feel proud to work for me and for the company was actually not to pretend to be superhuman or totally unaffected by pregnancy.”

She was trying to open up about the new, strange feelings. “Let’s be honest, I’m feeling really exhausted,” she said. “Do you know what I mean?”