To kick off 2017 we launched a live interview series with Lou & Grey, a brand that represents all things OKREAL: confidence, being comfortable in your own skin, and making your life your own. For our first live interview, we sat down with Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan, founders of The Wing, and we got real about their experience opening up their coworking space, the first of it’s kind in NYC. We also talked about the challenges they’ve faced along the way, how they stay grounded, what success means to them, and advice they have for women who are creating life on their own terms. Our favorite OKREAL quote: “It’s important to know your limits & respect them.”
Audrey: The Wing is a women’s space: part co-working, part community. We opened three months ago in Ladies Mile. It’s a standard co-working space in the sense that you can post up with your laptop and use good wifi, have a cup of coffee and jam through your to-do list—but it also has a bunch of amenities that normal co-working spaces have not taken into account: lactation rooms, showers, a room for hair and makeup. A sense of design that also feels really welcoming and calming, which is something we hear a lot from our members.
Lauren: It’s called Ladies Mile because this is the first area that women could shop unaccompanied by a male. We found the space and realized we were in this district which had real significance.
Audrey: There were actually 5000 women’s clubs between 1890 and 1920 in the US. They were the headquarters for women to come together and mobilize around issues of that time, especially suffrage.
Lauren: In terms of how our roles are split up, we’re both co-founders. Audrey is the CEO and I’m the COO. I’m more focused on the physical space, which my background contributed to. I was the first employee at SLT, a boutique fitness studio in New York. I was the first person behind the front desk, taking out the garbage, learning the ins and outs of running a small business. From there I went over to Class Pass and help them grow their studio relations. When Audrey and I met and we talked about the idea for The Wing, I was like, ‘Let’s do this.’
Audrey: I have a pretty non-traditional background for an entrepreneur or founder. Prior to The Wing I worked in New York City politics, essentially doing public relations and public affair strategy for elected officials. I was a big political nerd. I have left-wing, essentially socialist parents. I have taken zero economics classes in my life. So I really had no business doing this. But I will say that campaigns are a lot like founding companies or start ups in the sense that you’re going 24 hours a day, you need to mobilize, you need to raise funds, you need to have a message. You’re moving on all cylinders and you’re doing a lot of rapid response, which is a lot of what’s involved in being at the helm of your own business. I actually think that experience uniquely positioned me to be able to handle all that comes with this.
Audrey: The inspiration for The Wing came a few years ago when I was working in politics, and I would take the 6am Acela train to DC all the time. There were several instances when the train was moving while I was attempting to change into a suit in the bathroom, or even more daring, trying to put in my contacts. I looked around and saw all of these women who were leading several lives in the span of one day, and expected to do it seamlessly and make it look effortless. So I started paying attention to that, thinking more on the idea of a flexible use of space and the way that women were living their lives. That was where the idea came from. I thought—we could create a pitstop for women—it could be in airports, it can be in train stations. And when I met Lauren and we decided to partner, she really liked the idea that it could also be a community space. I think something that we really agreed on was that as millennials, we are so globally connected but we’re more locally isolated from each other. It can be a very lonely feeling. You go on Instagram and you think you’ve seen your friends, when you haven’t actually seen your friends.
Lauren: The community element resonated with me for a few reasons. I’m from New York, I’ve know the same people my whole life, and it can be really hard to make new friends as an adult. It can be intimidating, especially when you’re meeting people outside of your industry. When Audrey told me about this idea, I thought this could also be a place to take those walls down, and create a welcoming space to make real connections that can be difficult to do. We focus-grouped a lot before we opened The Wing, and asked the question: Would you want men here? Not one person said yes.
Audrey: My very first step for The Wing was to google ‘business plan.’ One small step for woman kind! I was helpless without Lauren. I think it’s very hard to do anything alone, and that finding someone to collaborate with was the best decision. Both of us had to learn that we didn’t need to listen to everyone’s opinion. When you’re starting something you have to drown that out a little bit. Even now, everyone’s got a perspective and they really want to make you stop and listen them. You have to learn the balance between being aware, but also not to be so porous that everyone’s opinion gets in.
Lauren: Deciding to do this was a huge thing for me, it was very scary to actually take the leap. But I thought—we have this an amazing vision, and I think this can work. You have to decide: are you going to let fear paralyze you or propel you? There was a point where it could have gone either way, and I haven’t looked back since. I think recognizing fear is how you learn to manage it.
Audrey: I agree. My mom is a therapist and she uses this method called parts therapy, where you name your parts, and they become less scary by doing so. If you give something a name you can learn how to ride with it a little bit more. As the business grows, those challenges are still exciting but the fear is still there. You’re still the same person.
Lauren: I think the reason I was scared to do this was because at that point in my life, I hadn’t pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. I knew I hadn’t failed in a big way to even know that I was trying hard enough, or to have had a really big learning. That’s how I knew I had to do this.
Audrey: I think you have to consider the flip side of that too. When I was doing public affairs work and politics, I pushed myself too hard sometimes, and am still trying to be more realistic with my expectations. ‘Easy does it,’ is a really important slogan that I’m trying to live by a little bit more now. It’s not an admission of weakness at all. I think that sometimes I trick myself into thinking I can do anything, and then I face plant. It’s important to know your limits and respect them.
Lauren: Something I’ve learned since launching The Wing is that everything costs more than you think it will, and everything will take longer than you think it will. So allocate twice as much time and twice as much money! Also, you can read every book, but at the end of the day, you just have to do it. You have to be able to let go and jump in.
Audrey: And also to trust your own voice. A lot of us have grown up learning how to express our voices publicly in a way that a seasoned marketing expert will never understand. You can read a million listicles and slideshows telling you how you do something, but if you can just be who you are, people will be drawn to that.
Lauren: I think the worst advice I’ve heard given to people starting their own business is: ‘Don’t worry, you can do it all.’ I think it’s far more important to ask for help. The best advice I’ve been given is to know when to pivot, to be flexible with your idea and to recognize when something isn’t working.
Audrey: The worst advice that I was given specifically about The Wing was from an investor who said, ‘It should be a mobile van.’ And there is this van in my neighborhood that does blow outs and really toxic hair processing. I have this vision of women on this van, falling over. Inevitably someone will say to you, ‘You should do this completely different idea that is actually my idea.’ And that’s when it’s important to smile and nod.
Audrey: If I could give advice to my 25 year old self I would say: You are not your mistakes. When you’re young, you live out loud and you feel things really passionately and intensely. You learn hard lessons. It’s important to remember that you’re not those defined by those hard lessons. It’s all part of the journey.