Audrey Gelman is co-founder and CEO of The Wing: a New York co-working space for women to ‘build relationships, hatch plans and run the world.’ Co-founded with Lauren Kassan, The Wing was built from $2.4 million in venture capital which Audrey raised in five months. It takes a certain tenacity to build a VC backed business—let alone a physical space—when you have no experience. Audrey is proof that if you’re willing to work for it, you can create what you want, and you can do it your way. When I asked how she figured this whole thing out, she credits the mosh-pit: “I used to go to a lot of live shows as a teenager, and think I got a lot of training in how to navigate the world from the ecosystem of a mosh pit. I was really scrawny but I was always close to the center. You had to identify who was going to look out for you. You had to stand akimbo in a way that no one could knock you down. You couldn’t do it alone. No one can do anything alone.”
“I was a really energetic kid. I was independent and extroverted, really curious, always wanting to do something new. I would take over every single group project. I had to learn how to work well in groups, almost to the point where I tried to tone myself down. Once I was in elementary school, and there were special dynamics, I wasn’t the most agreeable. It was alienating for some people, especially for boys who were my peers. I wasn’t even aware of the idea that there would be intra-competition between women, until I got to a certain age and it was all a big wake up call. But I always wanted to squeeze everything I could out of life, was always challenging for more. And since I was a zygote, my mom taught me the value of being surrounded by strong-willed, opinionated, intelligent women.
I read a quote the other day that said feminism was ‘the act of not being treated like a doormat,’ which I really resonate with. My version of feminism is being strong-willed, not afraid to speak up or push back, to think critically, and to refuse to fit into a box despite how uncomfortable it might make people. I think there’s a lot of pressure to fit into a classically-defined version of feminism, which can feel oppressive and rigid for some people. With The Wing for example—there was some criticism from people saying that any profit-driven enterprise does not fit into their definition of feminism. But I don’t know how I feel about that. I meet so many incredible women who have worked so hard to start their own businesses, who are so beaten up by how hard it is to create something of your own—and I just can’t accept that those women don’t get to be a part of a modern definition of feminism. A lot of people have asked us if we’re a non-profit—but would you assume or expect that men who started a co-working space would be a non-profit? It’s interesting for me personally, because I come from an actively liberal family and was sent to socialist summer camps—so I understand where the criticism is coming from and the thinking behind it. I don’t want to discount it, I want to engage with it and integrate it into the way we grow—but I do think that it’s a bit funny that there have been so many people who have said, ‘Shouldn’t this be a free utopia?’
I don’t think it’s fair that I have to answer questions that would never be asked of men.
You can get into that territory of feeling like you can’t do anything right, so why do anything at all? For that reason, I think it’s important to have an expansive view of what feminism can be, that doesn’t leave people feeling like they’re always missing the mark and they might as well give up. I think when you’re dealing with criticism in general, you don’t want to become so hardened that you don’t hear feedback at all—but a really important question to ask yourself is: ‘How much of this is theirs, and how much of this is mine?’ Because people often bring their own stuff into their critiques. You don’t need to take that on.
The Wing is like my ideal dinner party—where women who wouldn’t normally encounter each other do—and there’s this magical cross-pollination. I think that’s where powerful ideas get created—where different people overlap. Women are also taking on more and more, and we wanted to create an infrastructure to make that easier. It’s a place for the woman who has a lot going, who might struggle to make adult friends, whose cellphone is dying and who really needs to use the bathroom. The awesome thing about the space is that so far, while there’s no lack of ambition, there’s definitely an absence of snark. People are really warm and supportive.
Women need to hunt as a pack.
If one woman says something, nobody believes them, but if thirty women say it, people will. There’s safety in numbers, there’s solidarity. There is a way to build a rich and successful career without having to navigate tricky and often exhausting relationships with men.
Fundraising for The Wing was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I think there might a misconception of ‘oh, she knew lots of people.’ But we were told ‘no’ so many times. You start thinking, ‘maybe this is a bad idea. Maybe no one will want to come.’ Walking into a room as a five foot 28-year-old woman and putting a powerpoint on the screen is incredibly intimidating. There was a guy who said to me in a fundraising meeting, ‘This is how this works. I talk and you listen.’ He basically told me to sit down and shut up. I had to leave the meeting and say that it wasn’t going to be the right fit. I remember at one point being in the electronics section at Target with my mom and husband, crying hysterically, just like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ I felt very close to quitting at times. Don’t get me wrong, people go through far more treacherous circumstances with much less support, and are far more courageous. But it wasn’t fun. Once we had the capital, we had to find someone who would rent a space to two women in their twenties with no track record. We literally had to bring cupcakes to the landlord in this building and ask him to believe in us. He had a daughter our age, and he must have seen something in us.
I think courage is going to those hard places when you really don’t want to.
You have to have those days of: ‘I’m going to fail. No one’s going to want to be part of this. There’s too much to do. I’m never going to be able to get through all of it. I feel unprepared.’ Courage is deciding not to run away from those moments, and allowing them to teach you. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to just be winning all the time. A false sense of self-worth comes from winning, but real self-worth comes from the days when you’re losing, but you keep going anyway. Knowing that you worked hard, got through a ton of obstacles and didn’t let things stop you is what builds real esteem.”
Co-founder & CEO, The Wing
As told to Amy Woodside, November 2016.