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How women’s co-working startup The Wing fell to Earth

February 27, 2020, 6:40 PM UTC

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Not so long ago, Audrey Gelman, the CEO and co-founder of The Wing, a women’s co-working startup, was a happy harbinger of a new wave of woke and ready “girlbosses.”

“Last fall, I was the first visibly pregnant CEO on the cover of a business magazine—a powerful symbol in a climate in which women-founded startups attracted less than 3% of venture dollars,” she writes in Fast CompanyThat buzzy cover story, which was published by Inc, felt good at the time, but looking back she says it contributed to the myth that women really can have it all. “When we started our company three years ago, it was to build a community where women could gather, connect, and feel safe and supported,” says Gelman. “The myth doesn’t account for the reality that running a company is messy, terrifying, and often chaotic, especially in the early years.”

What follows is Gelman’s attempt to address the persistent critique that has tarnished The Wing’s shine: That she and her team, either by accident or design, had created a culture that was hostile to women of color. 

Tangible problems first became public last summer, when The Wing member Asha Grant and a guest, both Black, were harangued by a white member over a parking spot. The harassment, alleges Grant, continued inside. Wing staffers were unprepared to mediate, and the aggressor was allowed to stay while the Black women did not feel safe enough to stay. The incident got enough traction that it prompted The Wing to issue a statement published by Zora, the Medium magazine for women of color:

“In this specific incident, we struggled to get it right and we are deeply sorry. We know how important it is to build an environment and team that reflects the diversity of our membership and the cities we inhabit, especially considering the historical and systemic marginalization of women of color in the context of women’s spaces. This was a humbling experience for our team and we are currently putting measures in place to make sure we handle incidents like this one much more thoughtfully in the future.”

At its core, The Wing is an elite private women’s club, offering high-tone gatherings along with co-working—a self-proclaimed “accelerator of the [feminist] revolution,” served daily with rose, scented candles, and breastfeeding spaces. But to many, it was also a poster child for out-of-touch white feminism. Or something like that. “The Wing has been the subject of seemingly endless criticism—accused of being too rich, too white, too cis-gendered, too feminist, not feminist enough, too liberal and not liberal enough,” writes Linda Kistler in this searing deep dive.

But as a high-priced antidote to bro-ish career clubs, it felt doomed from the start. 

“There’s an interesting (but not surprising) juxtaposition between their mission of professional, civic, social, and economic advancement and the reality that women of color in the workforce face,” wrote Kaitlyn Ram Bo on The Melanin Collective blog shortly after The Wing launched. “Namely, that on the whole, women of color just couldn’t afford access into this so-called space of ‘economic advancement.’”

Writing in Zora, Char Adams calls for more workspaces designed for Black women, “instead of forcing us into largely White spaces that fail to cater to our needs,” and that allow bias to run unchecked, the kind “that often moves White and non-Black people in these spaces to view Black women as inherently dangerous and threatening.”

Gelman’s piece contains a post-mortem describing where she thinks she went wrong—a rush to build a community business at scale led to problematic shortcuts.

“We didn’t dedicate adequate attention to building inclusive recruiting practices,” she begins. “Employees were required to attend diversity and antibias trainings, but it was a one-time requirement and didn’t go deep enough.” 

More to the point, they didn’t listen to their employees or community members. “Rather than creating a healthy feedback loop and addressing with urgency the issues that members and employees identified, we prioritized business growth over cultural growth.”

I’ll leave you with this Fortune Commentary piece by Trudy Bourgeoies, the founder of the Center for Workforce Excellence and Julia Taylor Kennedy, the executive vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation.

Their advice begins and ends with one core principle: believe Black people. 

“Workplace racism can end only when employees who are not Black see, hear, and accept the truth about what their Black colleagues have experienced and continue to experience,” they say. Citing data conducted by a research group at the Center for Talent Innovation, 58% of black professionals have experienced racial prejudice at work—a higher percentage than any other racial or ethnic group surveyed.

Worse, while 65% of Black professionals responded that Black employees must work harder to advance in the workplace, only 16% of white professionals agreed.

To address this, difficult conversations are ahead, and Bourgeoies and Kennedy offer all the right tips: Gather representation data on the jobs held by Black professionals throughout the organization. Look at employee survey data. Then, create a safe space for company leaders and talent experts to face any facts and create accountable systems.

But at some point, people in charge will have to meet with Black (and other marginalized) employees. 

“Don’t be surprised if you unearth some surprising stories,” they warn, a tactful way to say upsetting. “You don’t have to have all the answers. You simply have to have the courage to create an environment that can promote a meaningful conversation, learning, and understanding.”

Until these conversations become commonplace, companies like The Wing will never fully take flight.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

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