By E.B. Boyd5 minute Read
Tasha Choi is a tech founder who’s building an AI-enabled platform for virtual career fairs. She moved to London last year and opened shop at a coworking office. Like most such spaces, it was overwhelmingly male, and for Choi, that threw a wrench in one of the key things early-stage founders look for in a shared space: the ability to network and collaborate.
“All these male coworkers don’t look at you as a coworker or a cofounder,” she says. “‘Let’s grab a coffee’ never means, ‘Let’s actually grab a coffee and actually talk about work.’ It means something else.”
Then Choi discovered Blooms Business Club, the city’s first female-focused coworking space. It’s situated on the edge of Shoreditch, London’s startup district, but its key ideas are the same as those that prompted the creation of similar spaces in New York (The Wing) and Seattle (The Riveter).
As the wider zeitgeist has highlighted in recent years, the larger business world is still mostly dominated by men—and by entrenched, even if unintentional, mind-sets about women. As a result, it’s not always hospitable to female founders. Collaboration with other women, then, becomes critical for many women’s success.
For Choi, the support from Blooms colleagues is proving invaluable. “They’re trying to listen and connect you with someone they know, not because they want something in return,” she says.
The Blooms outpost consists of a large, brightly lit space full of long tables and comfy armchairs. Lu Li, a former McKinsey & Company consultant and Proctor & Gamble brand manager, opened it last year as an outgrowth of Blooming Founders, a social network for women founders.
Several years ago, Li ditched the corporate world and started her own consulting business. New to London, Li doggedly made the rounds of startup events and entrepreneurship gatherings. Soon, she noticed how everything overwhelmingly tilted male. The food was always pizza and beer, she said, and the attendees were always “guys in suits or guys in T-shirts and sneakers.” It felt strikingly like the corporate world she’d just left. “It dawned on me that the business world was created by men for men,” she says.
At a philosophical level, she began to wonder: What would business look like if it had been designed by women? “There are many challenges that are in [a woman’s] way that are historically grown,” Li says. “Maybe we wouldn’t have to fight against the glass ceiling if there were no glass ceiling to begin with.”
Blooming Founders began as a way for Li to better understand the needs and interests of women in business. It was also a place for women founders to find and support each other.
“When you’re starting out and you enter a coworking space that might be full of guys, you’re like: ‘I don’t belong to this pack. Can I really do this?’” Li says. Women are much more likely to open up to other women. “Then you realize you’re not the only person who hasn’t done this, or who hasn’t figured that out.”
Meanwhile, Li saw more women leaving the corporate world and launching their own ventures. So she built the network she wishes was there when she was starting out.
Blooming Founders has become a community of 3,000 women entrepreneurs. In addition to a private online group where the women network and coach each other, Li also organizes dozens of in-person events on everything from calculating your business’s valuation to developing a healthy relationship with money.
The 24/7 coworking space emerged as an extension to the mission. More than 60 women signed up before the space even opened its doors last October. Nearly a year later, Blooms has about 150 members—including tech founders, consultants, food startups, fashion designers, and nonprofits.
Unlike New York’s The Wing, which is open only to women and non-binary people (a stance that has prompted an ongoing inquiry by the city’s Commission on Human Rights for alleged discrimination), Blooms’ doors are open to men as well. “I’m a big proponent of ‘women first,’ but not ‘women only,’” Li says. Women founders are “still about creating businesses and doing stuff for society, and society has men and women.”
Li isn’t worried the open-door policy will result in Blooms getting overrun by men. London has about 1,000 shared work spaces—from rooms above pubs, to the hipster kinds of spaces you’d find in the U.S., to traditional office-rental outfits. Any bro who gave Blooms a looksee would quickly pick up on its feminine energy and, Li predicts, look for digs elsewhere. Indeed, only eight men have joined so far—a few consultants and a Spanish company that needs a base in London.
The female touches at Blooms are partly physical—soft furniture, pastel colors, and shower rooms that feature hair dryers and full-length mirrors. “I’ve seen coworking spaces where there is a shower room but no mirror and no hair dryer,” Li says. “How are women supposed to use that? You can’t go for a run at lunchtime.”
There are also cultural and strategic dimensions. Members are expected to support the organization’s larger mission. Member breakfasts help the women get to know each other. And business mentors are on hand to help propel the companies forward. What’s most noticeable, though, and still exceedingly rare in the world at large, is to enter a space where women are the majority.
On a recent afternoon, about 30 women (and a handful of men) bent their heads over laptops or sat in clusters hammering away at shared projects.
The experience of being in a space that is overwhelmingly female is psychologically liberating in a way few women can put their finger on until they finally experience it.
Ally Owen, a veteran of the advertising world, joined Blooms after setting up her own digital marketing agency. “Previously, I’d always been aware that in any workplace I go into, I’m a female entering a workplace,” she says. Blooms “was the first time I’d been in a space where I didn’t feel I was a woman in a space. I was just in a space.”
Or as Choi, the creator of the career fairs app, put it, the tension she felt at other spaces evaporated once she started working here. “I didn’t really know how much stress that was causing me until I didn’t have it [anymore],” she says.
E.B. Boyd writes about innovation and gamechangers. Based in San Francisco, she has reported from the Middle East, Afghanistan, China, Haiti, and Northern California.