'SheWorking' startups trade kegs for nursing rooms

Co-working startups appeal to female professionals who aren't interested in WeWork's craft-beer culture.

By Bloomberg News

Mar 23, 2018 @ 1:08 pm EST

The first thing you see when you enter the Riveter's Seattle co-working space is the Mothers Room. It's an intentional signal to visitors that they're entering a place designed for women.

As the corporate world grapples with issues of sexual harassment, gender-pay disparities and too few women in leadership roles, female-focused workspaces are having a moment. Besides the Riveter, there's Radiant in San Francisco, the Hivery in Marin County, Calif., and the Wing in New York. They promise the usual co-working amenities of power outlets, Wi-Fi, coffee and spacious light-filled spaces, along with women-centric mentoring, workshops and a community of like-minded female professionals.

These spaces intend to be different from what you typically see at offices operated by WeWork Cos., the dominant force in co-working. The New York-based company has some big advantages over newcomers: more than 200 buildings worldwide and $4.75 billion in funding, in an industry that costs a lot of money to set up and grow. WeWork caters to millennials, both men and women. In the past, the head of WeWork has used the number of beers consumed at its offices as a measure of success.

The vibe at WeWork won't appeal to everyone, which could create an opening for alternatives. (WeWork seems to recognize this and is an investor in the Wing.)

"Most co-working spaces, you see kegs; you see foosball tables; you see ping-pong tables, video games," said Amy Nelson, co-founder of the Riveter. "It creates a certain type of culture, and it's a good one, but it's not one where I felt like I could find community and talk to women who have done what I was trying to do."

Ms. Nelson, 38, left a career as a corporate litigator to start the Riveter last year after she "ran headfirst into the maternal wall," as she described it.

While on parental leave from her job as a lawyer, Ms. Nelson said the company promoted a more senior lawyer, and she wanted to be considered as his replacement. She paused her leave to come into the office and make a pitch for the position. She said she was informed that it wasn't the right time to promote her. After all, she had a new baby. She decided not to submit an application, and shortly after, she left the company.

Ms. Nelson declined to name her former employer, but her LinkedIn profile shows she worked at T-Mobile US Inc. at the time.

A spokeswoman for T-Mobile said it doesn't comment on personnel matters but provided a statement via email. "We pride ourselves on our diverse workforce, and we value the contributions that each employee brings every day to T-Mobile. That very much includes parents," she wrote. "If an employee ever raises concerns about any workplace practices that are counter to our culture of inclusivity, we promptly investigate and address them."

Initially, Ms. Nelson planned to create a child-sleep consulting practice and started attending workshops for entrepreneurs. Most of the sessions were located in shared offices, and she noticed the spaces weren't really designed to appeal to women. Most of the attendees at the classes were men.

Ms. Nelson named her startup after Rosie the Riveter from the World War II-era "We Can Do It!" posters. She wears a pin depicting Rosie's muscular, flexed bicep. The Riveter now has two locations in Seattle, with plans to open another in Los Angeles this spring and three to four more later this year in Denver and Dallas. On Monday, Ms. Nelson announced a $4.75 million investment led by Madrona Venture Group, which includes funding from others including Helm, X Factor and Brilliant Ventures.

She outlined her vision from the company's original location, in a century-old building with high ceilings and antique wood flooring, tucked among bars, coffee shops and homes in the hip Capitol Hill neighborhood. As she spoke, her third child, a chubby-cheeked six-month-old, cooed in her lap and proceeded to remove both her socks and throw them on the floor.

Riveter buildings are designed to have more open space than private offices because many women who build companies do it alone and want to meet lots of people who can help them, Ms. Nelson said. Instead of arcade games and beer, the Capitol Hill space has a podcast studio, showers, changing rooms and an exercise studio. On-site classes range from yoga to salary negotiation. There's a monthly potluck and a breakfast called the Assembly, at which members can come and ask for anything they need — advice, a good coder or a nanny. The company is planning an online site for collaboration and networking.

Of Riveter's more than 700 members, 20% are men. Ms. Nelson opted to create something female-focused, rather than ladies-only, to avoid alienating teams with male employees, co-founders or investors. Still, the setup could deter some clients or job seekers who want a neutral office that doesn't cater to one gender over the other.

Riveter's approach to real estate could help it stay out of the money pit other co-working companies have fallen into, said Hope Cochran, a venture capitalist at Madrona and the firm's only female partner. Because the Riveter is trying to court women who may want to squeeze in a few hours of work between kid pickups or exercise, it's renting properties in residential areas and near SoulCycle or yoga studios instead of in pricey urban centers, Ms. Cochran said. "It's good for the customer and brings costs down," she said.

Ms. Nelson deliberately positions herself as a working mother-entrepreneur. (One data point: She gave birth to three girls in three years and 12 days.) She chronicles her experiences on Instagram, where she posts monologues about pitching VCs while pregnant and nursing. At eight weeks postpartum, she posted a photo of herself with a pump attached to both breasts at 3:30 a.m. before heading out for a flight to meet investors in New York.

One VC asked if she was truly capable of running a business while raising three small kids, Ms. Nelson recalled. Her response: "I built this company while I was pregnant, which means I can physically do anything."

(More: Why offices are starting to look like forests)

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