By Jane Claspy Nesmith for The Gazette
On a sunny Thursday afternoon, just past 5 p.m., you’d expect most people to be headed home from work. But at The Dostal House, a retail and coworking space for women on Third Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids’ NewBo neighborhood, things are just getting started.
A weekly event, Happy Hour at the House, is just beginning. Founder of The Dostal House, Meegan Hofmeister, is welcoming people — mostly women — as they come in the door of the pink-painted house. Small groups of women cluster together in the main room of the brightly lit home-turned-retail space, sipping margaritas, introducing themselves and chatting.
Hofmeister doesn’t call Happy Hour at the House “networking.”
“I don’t really like the term ‘networking,’ ” Hofmeister said. “It sounds like you need to have an agenda to get together.” Instead, Hofmeister fosters a relaxed social setting for female entrepreneurs to meet, make connections and be inspired.
The Dostal House grew out of a sense that women needed a place like this — a co-working space, gathering place and retail outlet where they felt at home. But The Dostal House didn’t start out that way.
Hofmeister began working in the building, built as a home in 1910, at a time of change and crisis in her life. She’d just gotten married, and the retail business she’d owned had closed. At a crossroads when it came to how to move forward in her life, she had started a social media consulting business in her home. She loved the business, but knew she needed to get out of the house. Working in one’s pajamas all day sounds appealing, but it wasn’t enough for outgoing Hofmeister. And she missed her retail roots.
Her husband then offered her a challenge. They owned the former home at the corner of 11th Street and Third Avenue SE in New Bo, and it had no tenant. “He said I needed to get out and find a tenant, or do something with the building myself,” said Hofmeister. “I decided to do something with it myself.”
Wanting to bring more retail to the NewBo area, Hofmeister first envisioned the building — which she named The Dostal House, after its first owners — as a kind of retail incubator for female entrepreneurs. She invited two entrepreneur acquaintances, Emily Carlson and Nikki Hynek, to join her in the space. Carlson’s WRITTEN apparel, featuring pencil skirts she designs, and Hynek’s DOLLUP Beauty cosmetics could be shown in the retail space on the first floor, while all the women had desks on the bright and open second floor. There was even room for more desks on that second floor, so Hofmeister decided to invite more local women to apply to be part of a coworking space.
Coworking isn’t new in the Corridor — there are several other coworking spaces in the area, offering start-up companies and solo entrepreneurs a space to work outside the home and benefit from the synergy that can develop when working alongside others. Hofmeister herself had tried coworking elsewhere. “I loved the energy and buzz, but I didn’t feel at home with these really tech-y guys and an atmosphere that was driven by testosterone,” she said. Besides, local coworking spaces did not offer space for retail, and that was the direction she wanted to go.
Hofmeister got an outpouring of interest in The Dostal House when it opened, and a surprising amount of that interest was in the coworking space.
“My email was flooded with messages from women who were looking for shared space, and who wanted to meet other women,” she said. Quickly, the open desks were claimed, and The Dostal House became what it is today: a combined retail and co-working space for women with an active social club.
The popularity of a coworking opportunity led to two different levels of co-working memberships. There are limited “Woman of the House” memberships, which provide a permanent desk space on the house’s second floor. “Social Club” memberships allow for co-working in other areas of the building. Both come with free admission to all events where members can meet and network with each other.
The Dostal House fills a niche for women who want co-working, retail space and networking with a feminine vibe. Social events are geared toward women’s interests — book clubs that discuss books by and about women, DIY parties where crafts and conversation bring diverse women together and “Girls’ Nights Out” where members can become a hostess at The Dostal House for a program of their choice.
Even the decor has a feminine appeal — the pink exterior of the house, the soft, bright colors inside and even the quirky, feminine touches: rococo frames on whiteboards and snappy framed inspirational quotes, (“I’m very definitely a woman and I enjoy it”).
Emily Carlson and Nikki Hynek, two of the first members of the coworking space, have made the most of the feminine synergy. Besides creating and designing products for retail, they produce a weekly Facebook Live show on topics related to fashion and style.
“We go on location almost every week,” Hynek said. They visit businesses, like shops and spas, run by other local women. “The show reviews what each place is all about.”
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“Having a workspace like Dostal House was very important to us,” Carlson said. “An amazing byproduct of being here was that we met other women who own businesses.”
Although Hofmeister welcomes men to Dostal House events, she strongly believes that Eastern Iowa needs a place to nurture women entrepreneurs in a feminine environment. After all, Hofmeister points out, women-owned businesses account for more than one-third of all privately owned businesses. “Iowa ranks 43rd in terms of supporting those women,” Hofmeister says. “That’s seven from the bottom. I want to move it up.”