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Why Women-Focused Coworking is on the Rise: a Conversation with Iris Kavanagh

Iris Kavanagh | Women Who Cowork

Not too long ago, female-focused coworking was a whisper from the fringes of the coworking movement. Now it’s a quickly-growing niche of the workspace industry, with new models and spaces popping up regularly around the world.

What’s behind the rise of these spaces? Why do they appeal to women? And how do they fit into a movement rooted in inclusivity?

I chatted with Iris Kavanagh (pictured below), co-founder of Women Who Cowork and founder of Coworking with Iris, about the rise of female-focused space, the importance of supporting women entrepreneurs, and the many branches of the coworking tree. Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Iris Kavanagh | Women Who Cowork
Iris Kavanagh | Women Who Cowork

Cat Johnson: What was your first impression of female-focused coworking?

Iris Kavanagh: Hera Hub, a female-focused coworking brand founded by Felena Hanson, opened in 2010. At the time, it seemed like a really interesting concept, but I was one of those people who didn’t understand the value of it. I didn’t understand the purpose of a women-focused coworking space, but I thought it was great that another model of coworking was being created.

I try to be a really inclusive person, and our brand of coworking at NextSpace at the time was to open the doors, let everybody in, and see what happens. That was our philosophy and that’s been my philosophy that I carried forward from there. I think I didn’t pay as much attention to women-focused coworking in the beginning because it didn’t meet a need I had, and I preferred a more inclusive option for people.

Do you still feel like that?

No. My thinking started shifting in 2015. I had a long conversation with a former NextSpace member, a female entrepreneur. She raised a concern that I hadn’t considered before—that NextSpace could have done a better job providing support to female entrepreneurs in those early days—that it really was a man’s club. She pointed out that the resources we provided were sort of vanilla resources. What I understand now is that vanilla means created by, and dominated by, the male business archetype.

That was my first foray into seeing the unique needs of female business owners from the perspective of someone who had been in coworking. Prior to that, I had spent a year and a half in a women’s business coaching program. In a very supportive environment around other female entrepreneurs, I learned a lot about being a woman, and about the unique offerings of women, and that it’s okay to come into a situation with your feminine ways—that you can actually build a business on those feminine ways.

Felicity Maxwell, founder of FiberCove in Austin, Texas | Women Who Cowork
Felicity Maxwell, founder of FiberCove in Austin, Texas | Women Who Cowork

I landed in that group coaching program because I had lost my job at NextSpace. I had put my heart and soul into the company. To do that so completely and then to be completely removed from that work I had done, I almost immediately knew that, whatever I did in the future, my kids were going to come first, and I was going to be 100 percent, authentically myself.

At NextSpace I hadn’t been 100 percent myself. I was working for a company that was owned by, and run by, people with pedigrees. They were establishment people and I am highly from the fringes of society, and still skirt the edges. I was the token hippie socialist on the team, so I curtailed a lot of the feelings I would have around the idea of NextSpace having world domination, and all those terms the guys would use.

I came to this idea of female entrepreneurship and female coworking through a journey of my own as a female supporting entrepreneurs, then deciding that I could also be an entrepreneur myself.

I realized I really wanted to start telling the stories of the females in the industry—and there are so many females in this industry. I was able to interview women I really admire, like Ashley Proctor, Nicole Vasquez, Liz Elam, Jamie Russo, Angel Kwiatkowski. The more I did that, the more I got excited about interviewing these women who were creating these amazing experiences and community efforts.

In the last couple of years, we’ve gone from a few women-focused spaces to such a fast-growing movement that it’s getting challenging to keep track of all the female-focused spaces. What are you seeing from your vantage point?

In 2015, when I met Laura Shook Guzman and we decided to work together on Women Who Cowork together, there were just a handful of female-focused spaces. In 2017, more female-focused spaces opened, and some exclusive spaces opened—and there is a difference between the two. We started to notice a trend and that trend got a lot of pushback from people who would say that it’s not inclusive and if it’s women-only then you’re excluding men. There was a pretty big learning curve for people around that idea.

Women Who Cowork retreat
Women Who Cowork retreat

My thinking around it is that coworking is only continuing to branch and broaden. We started with a trunk of the coworking movement, and from that trunk have come all these branches that look very different from that original movement. The original Citizen Space in San Francisco is very different from your typical Galvanize, and yet it’s all coworking.

If you can have a space that’s exclusive to writers, why can’t you have a space that’s exclusive to women? I also really recognize the need for women to gather in a space for women. Statistics show that women do better in an environment that’s predominantly female because we feel safer about making mistakes and not knowing everything we don’t know.

2018 is an explosion of women opening spaces—coworking spaces, in general, and female-focused coworking spaces. My take is that this is part of a sea change of female leadership across the globe. Women are no longer sidelined in the business world. We are creating our world of business now. And it will be inclusive, because we are inclusive. It will be more inclusive than any of the traditional spaces have been because we will include things like childcare, and we will include opportunities for minorities and other females, because that’s what we do—we think of the village and not just ourselves.

What does it mean to you for a space to be female-focused?

Felena said it best. When she talks about the difference between female-focused and female-only. The idea behind Hera Hub is that it’s designed for women to feel comfortable. That doesn’t mean it’s just pretty—it also means that there are opportunities, in different ways. The kitchen is well-designed, not just a last-minute, thrown together aspect of the space. The environs are pleasing to enter into, they’re pleasing to sit in, they’re pleasing to experience.

We know that people do better when they work in an environment that is designed to enhance the human experience in the environment. So, when Felena talks about Hera Hub’s spa-like environment, she’s referring to a calming, well-designed environment that’s designed to help you stay in your parasympathetic nervous system and work in a nurturing and supportive environment.

Angel Kwiatkowski, Cat Johnson, Iris Kavanagh - Exhibiting The Power Of Being Vulnerable In A Group | Women Who Cowork
Angel Kwiatkowski, Cat Johnson, Iris Kavanagh – Exhibiting The Power Of Being Vulnerable In A Group | Women Who Cowork

The traditional coworking space caters to the women who can work anywhere—who feel comfortable in a room full of men. It’s great that we can have a supportive environment for women who, for whatever reason, don’t excel in a room full of men so they can also experience an environment that nurtures and supports entrepreneurs and meets them at their need level.

A majority of those women are probably not doing business ventures that men would consider traditionally viable. Women are opening businesses all over that are coming from their feminine, and their female experience.

Do you want to speculate about where this is all going? What’s the future of women-focused spaces?

In general, coworking is going to continue to fill a niche for a while until we reach the point where coworking is a household term. I do think that more and more women-focused spaces are going to open up because there’s a need for it. There’s a need for women to feel like we can be business owners, and child-rearers, and women all at the same time.

It took me having that conversation with my entrepreneur friend in 2015 and identifying my own needs as a female business owner to really understand why female-focused spaces are important. My hope is that through the MeToo movement, and the women’s equality movement, and through this aspect of our own industry, that we will reach equilibrium and come to a point where a woman-focused coworking space isn’t seen as a negative thing and maybe isn’t even necessarily needed as much as it is needed today.

What are your thoughts on the pushback around exclusivity in female-focused spaces—that it’s not coworky?

Feminism became a dirty word for a lot of people in the ‘70s—they assumed it meant you were somehow less of a woman if you identified as a feminist, or you were a man-hater. We have to stop making these zero-sum qualifiers. Just because women need a place to be where they feel supported by other women does not mean they’re excluding men from their lives overall.

A lot of clubs and organizations have been men-focused for a very long time. In order to be accepted into those organizations, women have had to become more male-identified. For women to have serious business clubs, like a coworking space, in which we can take ourselves seriously and be taken seriously, provides us the opportunity to continue to be ourselves, and come to the table with our strengths, and do so without the fear of condescension because we don’t know something. In a co-ed environment, women have less tendency to speak up because we’re taught not to speak up.

Girls do better in all-girl schools and women do better in women-focused environments because, generally speaking, we’re not going to rile each other for asking “stupid” questions.

In the male-dominated world, there are only a few slots for women, so those spots become competitive and women end up competing against other women for those spots. Then you have the sisterhood glass ceiling. In a female-focused environment, there is no sisterhood glass ceiling because we’re not competing—we can be our naturally collaborative selves.

Women Who Cowork unconference session at GCUC, USA 2017
Women Who Cowork unconference session at GCUC, USA 2017

by Cat Johnson, a content strategist, storyteller and coworking member at NextSpace Santa Cruz.

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