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The Wing is an interior designer’s Instagram-perfect fantasy.
The books on the walls are color-coded. The plants are lush. The bathrooms are stocked with luxury beauty products. On a recent visit to the SoHo location of the women’s club and coworking space, sunlight bathed millennial-pink furniture as, one floor below, construction finished on a childcare center.
To its founders, members, investors, and critics, though, the Wing is so much more than a pretty office. It’s a “safe, affirming professional network,” as Audrey Gelman, one of its co-founders, puts it. It is also a “workspace with community-building at its core,” according to Nicole Gibbons, a Wing member.
The Wing has five locations in New York City, Brooklyn, the District of Columbia, and San Francisco, with more than 6,000 members. It offers events like “Prenup 101,” and invitations to intimate evenings with notables such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jennifer Lawrence. It hosts community discussions with titles like “Fuck Harvey Weinstein;” it promotes social activism, chartering buses to feminist rallies, and has had voter registration drives.
The SoHo location feels like an oasis, with everything from the lactation room to the phone booths (named after fictional heroines like Ramona Quimby, Hermione Granger, and Lisa Simpson) designed with women in mind — something sorely lacking in most workplaces.
But this sanctuary, of course, isn’t available to everyone. It’s application-only, and its $215 monthly price tag (or $250 to access all locations), though affordable in the realm of coworking spaces, puts it out of reach for many women.
Per critic Kaitlyn Borysiewicz, the Wing focuses on “the advancement of a certain type of woman.”
The founders engage with their critics — “we love getting feedback,” Gelman says — but questions around exclusivity continue to dog The Wing. These questions come at a time when the “Lean In” brand of women’s empowerment, espoused by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, is receiving increased criticism.
Meanwhile, The Wing is growing. Last month, it raised $75 million in a series C funding round led by Sequoia Capital and Upfront Ventures — venture capital firms that invested in giants like Airbnb, Instagram, Ulta, and Bird. The timing feels right for The Wing’s expansion, too, given that the sharing economy continues to grow. Companies like Airbnb, Uber, Rent the Runway, and WeWork are appealing to consumers who prefer not to commit to clothes, cars, or office space.
All this puts The Wing, which Gelman and co-founder Lauren Kassan started in October 2016, at the center of some of today’s biggest debates about gender, power, and corporate feminism. As it grows, with $117.5 million in total funding raised, The Wing will only become more central to these debates — all of which are poised to become even more pressing in 2019 and beyond.
The Wing, explained
The idea for The Wing came from Gelman’s nomadic lifestyle in 2015, when she was working at the PR firm SKDKnickerbocker and often traveled between New York City and DC without a home base to answer emails or change her outfit between meetings. The Wing’s team has worked hard to build a space that Gelman compares to a college library — fun and inviting, with an unapologetic work-hard vibe.
“You immediately walk in and feel this feeling that is really communal and it’s energizing,” Gelman told Vox at the Wing’s SoHo cafe. “Women set more ambitious life goals for themselves in the company of other women.”
When the first club opened in New York City’s Flatiron neighborhood, the intent was to celebrate “the golden age of women in power,” Gelman told the Washington Post; the founders assumed Hillary Clinton was about to be elected president.
When Donald Trump won instead, Gelman told Vox, “things got so dark, and women were locking arms with one another in ways that they never had before.” They wanted “spaces where they could come together … to advance whatever professional goals that they had, but also to feel that there was an alternative from what they were experiencing in the world.”
Like many other startups with a mostly young workforce, The Wing has traded office cubicles for an open seating plan. It also has a hot-desk model, where members don’t get assigned seating and move around instead. This type of work atmosphere, says Gelman, promotes the type of network The Wing hopes members will develop.
The Wing, Gelman and Kassan, both 31, have said, mimics the women’s club movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When women couldn’t join men’s institutions like country clubs or elite colleges, and didn’t have the right to vote, they created groups of their own. Clubs like Sorosis, the New England Women’s Club, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society became places where members executed changes in their neighborhoods. They also gathered to talk political activism and justice reform, and pushed for women’s suffrage. Gelman sees The Wing as a place that can “inherit the mantle of groups like that.”
Women’s history aside, interest in The Wing also comes from the fact that its founders are well-connected. Early members of The Wing include Girls creator Lena Dunham, Jenna Lyons (formerly of J.Crew), fashion blogger Leandra Medine, Women of the World’s Tina Brown, and model and trans activist Hari Nef. When the club launched, it was showered with attention on social media and in the press.
“The Wing represents a new kind of exclusive club that taps into the needs, ambitions, and aesthetics of a certain kind of New York woman,” one Quartz correspondent wrote shortly after becoming a member. “We’re feminists. We like nice things, but dislike pretension. Many of us don’t have offices. We meld work and play, and lightly stalk the online presence of women whose work we admire. And we never thought we’d join a members-only club.”
From the start, though, The Wing also stirred controversy.
The Wing has inspired debates among feminists
For many members, The Wing is a workplace where they won’t get bothered or interrupted by men.
“I see more women breastfeeding on conference calls there than I’ve seen anywhere else,” said Aminatou Sow, co-host of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend and a Wing member.
But some have argued that by charging several hundred dollars a month for membership — and requiring would-be members to apply for admission — The Wing has put its benefits out of reach of the very women who could use them most, especially women of color and low-income women.
The company focuses on advancing “the type of woman who could readily and easily afford to spend over $2,000 a year,” according to Kaitlyn Borysiewicz, who wrote a critique of The Wing in April 2018 at the Melanin Collective, a website dedicated to women of color that she co-founded.
“Unfortunately,” she told Vox, “that type of woman isn’t the type of woman who actually needs opportunity and access the most.”
“Women of color are more likely to occupy low paying or working poor jobs,” Borysiewicz wrote, meaning they’re unlikely to be able to afford The Wing’s membership fee, and the promise of upward mobility and networking offered by The Wing is closed to them.
In response to such criticisms, Gelman told Vox that diversity is integral to The Wing: “We don’t do a panel at The Wing without representation from women of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Our beauty rooms have beauty products specifically for women of color, like hair products, but also tools. We really try to think about diversity not only in terms of who is actually in the space but also in terms of how the space is being designed.”
The Wing also offers two-year scholarships for those who can’t afford its membership. The scholarship team, the company says, “focuses on individuals who work in industries that are underrepresented in our membership, are typically underfunded, and who work [for the] advancement of marginalized women and girls.” In general, Gelman told Vox that “we look at membership through the lens of diversity.”
But, Borysiewicz asks, “why are you making underserved women compete for access to these valuable resources?” And speaking of The Wing’s founders, she asked, “why are these socioeconomically elite white women setting the criteria on what an underserved woman deserves?”
“The equity for women of color specifically should be the common factor” in The Wing’s endeavors, Borysiewicz said. “I think if they had made that their core principle from the start, we wouldn’t be having a lot of these conversations now.”
The Wing is currently exploring tiered memberships, where members can pay less in exchange for less access to the space.
Critics also see The Wing as co-opting the language and iconography of feminism to make money. Writer Daisy Alioto took issue with “the branding of the coworking space as some sort of social good for all women rather than a service that individual women pay for,” in a conversation published last July in Study Hall, a newsletter aimed at freelance media workers.
“I’m glad some women will benefit from it,” she wrote. “But I don’t think Audrey Gelman is a pioneer for feminism — she’s an opportunist.”
Gelman and Kassan are careful not to label their company as feminist.
The company’s policies are feminist, Gelman told Vox. But, she adds, “Are we the answer to every facet and historic dilemma of feminism? No, and we don’t claim to be.”
To some degree, debates about The Wing’s feminist bona fides may get more attention in media circles than in the culture at large. For a certain subset of women in media, the company “became this flashpoint for everything that upset us about 2018,” journalist Beejoli Shah told Vox.
Meanwhile, some argue that The Wing is judged far more harshly than other coworking businesses, like WeWork, that make no particular effort to cater to women. “Is there going to be an article about WeWork or any of these other coworking spaces?” asked Renee Bracey Sherman, a reproductive justice activist and Wing member. “People like to interrogate the things that women and queer folks and people of color who are getting attention are doing.”
As some members have pointed out, compared to some other spaces, The Wing is actually more affordable. A desk at WeWork costs more than a Wing membership, starting at $300 a month in New York City; access to WeWork programming, unlike Wing events, also costs additional fees.
Nor is The Wing alone in requiring would-be members to complete an application process. Soho House, an exclusive social club that started in London, has a membership committee that decides who gets in and who stays out. Critiques of The Wing “are very pointed in ways that I do not hear them being pointed at businesses that do essentially the same thing,” Sow said. “I have not seen the polemic around Soho House.”
Debates about The Wing are part of a bigger conversation about corporate feminism
So why has The Wing inspired so much controversy? Debates over the company are part of a larger public discussion about feminism, corporate America, and values-based consumption.
The Wing’s price tag and application process have linked it in some critics’ minds with the kind of women’s empowerment espoused by career gurus like Sheryl Sandberg. This approach to feminism, which celebrates women who climb the corporate ladder to ever more powerful positions, has been questioned more and more in recent years.
Sandberg’s core claim in Lean In, her 2013 memoir and career guide manifesto, was that more women at the top of the corporate hierarchy would improve conditions for all women. Some critics took issue with this, arguing that promoting the advancement of middle- and upper-class professional women without changing established power structures would only benefit the already privileged — and that telling women to “lean in” put all the onus on them, rather than on society. Critics have come to call Sandberg’s approach “corporate feminism,” arguing that it benefits businesses and wealthy women but no one else.
“When feminism becomes embroiled in corporate interests, the already-marginalized in our society are sidelined, omitted, and simply oppressed under a more progressive guise,” Lauren Rankin wrote in a 2013 Mic article.
The late 2010s have brought even more skepticism about perceived coziness between feminism and big business. Many feminists have long called for a greater awareness of the ways in which racism and economic injustice intersect with gender discrimination, and in the wake of the election of President Trump, those calls are receiving a wider audience than ever before. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement has exposed the ways corporations can protect and abet sexual harassers, making some doubt whether titans of industry, of any gender, really have women’s best interests at heart.
For The Wing, all this has meant a kind of scrutiny that competitors like WeWork don’t receive.
That scrutiny can feel unfair — especially since it’s impossible to separate from the fact that high-profile women in business often get more criticism than their male counterparts.
The Wing was likely bound to get a certain amount of pushback simply by virtue of the gender of its founders. Gelman said that while her company has been trying to be open and responsive to some of the pushback it’s received, The Wing has inevitably become a victim of constant criticism.
“People can’t metabolize watching female ambition, and I think they start to short-circuit,” she said. “We see it consistently. Some of it is misogyny, some of it is internalized misogyny. I think that some of it is fair criticism that the Wing has really absorbed and learned from. But I do think there’s something inherently provocative about young women doing things that are new.”
As Sow put it, “it’s made by women and it’s working.”
“There is a fundamental truth that people are uncomfortable about women’s success and women’s ambition,” she said.
Meanwhile, The Wing’s founders would argue that its success benefits more than just the well-heeled. All employees, including part-time workers, get health care benefits and stock options; they will also have access to the child care facilities once they’re open. The Wing hires formerly incarcerated women and survivors of domestic violence to work in its cafes, and pays all workers a minimum of $16.50 an hour.
While she was at SKDKnickerbocker, Gelman worked with Patagonia, the outdoor apparel company with a commitment to environmentalism, and she now describes the company as “the North Star that I look to.”
“When you spend money here,” she says, “your money is going into a cycle of good.”
The big business of coworking — and women in it
Last year, the coworking industry publication Deskmag predicted that there would be 19,000 co-working spaces across the globe by the end of 2018 — a sizable market, but one with plenty of room for growth. The commercial real estate firm CBRE calculates that coworking is a burgeoning opportunity, with the space growing 21 percent annually.
Dozens of companies use the model, but WeWork is the biggest. It has 400,000 members and 400 locations in 26 countries. The company is now the largest office tenant in Manhattan, London, and DC.
When The Wing opened in 2016, coworking spaces like WeWork were already popular. But the pool tables, free booze, and what some have described as a “frat boy” culture at WeWork don’t always make women feel comfortable.
Meanwhile, public spaces aren’t always a better option for women. Take Sherman, the reproductive justice activist, who says that because of her job, working in a coffee shop can be difficult. “It’s really exhausting to be on a conference call in a cafe and people looking at me funny because I’m saying the word ‘abortion,’” she told Vox.
At The Wing, she said, that isn’t a problem. “The fact that I can work on a comfy couch, it smells really nice, I can say the word abortion over and over and no one side-eyes me, and that men aren’t asking me stupid questions and trying to hit on me while I’m trying to read and get my shit done, is huge,” she said.
When WeWork announced in November 2017 that it was investing in The Wing, WeWork chief operating officer Jen Berrent said, “From the moment we entered the first Wing location, we knew there was something special.” Initially, it seemed unusual for WeWork to invest in a competitor, especially an amount like $32 million. But Berrent noted that The Wing was a win for WeWork because it was providing “the opportunity for women to create magic by gathering together.”
To Jess Lee, a partner at Sequoia Capital who led the most recent funding round of The Wing, the opportunity is enormous.
“We look for companies that can grow to legendary proportions, and The Wing is one that is capturing lightning in a bottle,” she told Vox.
Sequoia, Lee said, sees The Wing as fueling the trend of people getting offline and establishing a network IRL.
Gelman told Vox that all Wing locations are profitable, and that it’s grown tremendously over the past two years (the company declined to provide annual revenue figures but said it grew 405 percent last year). With its latest injection of funding, The Wing plans to expand soon to LA, Chicago, Boston, and Seattle. It will also open spaces in Toronto and London, and Lee believes the company is situated for a mass global expansion. Gelman added that the idea of opening locations in non-Western countries is particularly exciting to the company.
“The Wing has the possibility of becoming the world’s largest network of women,” Lee said. “Its members use it in a lot of different ways — for office space, networking, a place to build their side hustle, for the events. The Wing is going to completely change coworking.”
Women in the VC space like Lee are particularly passionate about empowering other women in business. Earlier this year, Lee and 33 other women in venture capital launched AllRaise, a nonprofit that aims to “accelerate the success of female funders and founders.”
“We need to work together to prove that women founders can fund globally impactful, multibillion-dollar, world-changing businesses,” said Lee. “We know it’s true, but there need to be extra spaces and networks to help that happen.”
There are plenty of stories of women who’ve built businesses, found their partners, and even secured funding through The Wing, which excites the VCs at AllRaise. (The Wing is not directly affiliated with AllRaise, although Lee says they have similar values. Gelman also gives volunteer office hours for AllRaise.)
Wing member Nicole Gibbons started her paint company Clare out of The Wing. She told Vox its network was crucial to the business because she had access to office hours with VCs.
“I didn’t know any investors, and I definitely didn’t know anything about raising capital, and so sitting with a VC and share my vision and get feedback was incredibly valuable,” she said. While the investor she met through The Wing’s office hours didn’t end up investing in Clare, Gibbons eventually met Gelman, who introduced her to two VCs at Able Partners who did.
While its latest round of funding will no doubt help The Wing’s expansion lead to future women-run startups like Clare, The Wing also plans to grow beyond the office space. It already operates a media brand, titled No Man’s Land, which includes a biannual print magazine and a women’s history podcast. The company recently started developing its app into a social network for members, and Lee said part of the funding will be used to update this technology.
“I think there are a lot of people who want to be tapping into the network and engaging around some of the events that we do,” Gelman said. “There’s a huge opportunity with women who aren’t necessarily in a city where a Wing is opening.”
With this move, The Wing would be undermining existing social networks that have largely been created by men, and where women often face harassment. Cadran Cowansage, who created a social network for women in tech, Leap, says social networks for women are valuable because “much existing work culture, from communication styles to social events, is designed by men.”
“It’s the same reason why men join golf clubs,” Cowansage said. “There’s so much more to business than what happens in an office. It’s the sharing of insight, advice, and connections that really supports people behind the scenes and helps propel them in their careers. In a male-dominated workplace, women tend to be excluded from those experiences.”
The Wing’s membership policy has opened it up to legal action
The Wing has faced pushback over its status as a women-only space. While the company has long admitted members who identify as nonbinary, its founders have been criticized for focusing on women in their marketing.
The company has also found itself in legal trouble over its decision to exclude men. In spring 2018, the New York City Commission on Human Rights opened an investigation into The Wing, according to Jezebel. The commission does not comment on open investigations, but it is tasked with investigating violations of the city’s human rights law, which bars most businesses from discriminating on the basis of gender.
Several legal scholars agreed that The Wing was, technically, in violation of city law. But some questioned whether investigating The Wing was a good use of the commission’s time, especially since the human rights law was largely intended to protect women and other marginalized groups, not men, from discrimination.
A spokesperson for the New York City Commission on Human Rights told Vox the investigation has not been closed but would not comment further. (The Wing told Vox that it is “working collaboratively with the commission to bring the investigation to an end in the coming weeks.”)
In August 2018, a man named James Pietrangelo sued The Wing for gender discrimination after, he said, he was denied admission to the DC club. (Pietrangelo has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.)
The Wing has moved for the case to be dismissed, and the motion is currently awaiting a decision by a judge.
Big business comes with growing pains
The bigger The Wing gets, the more criticism it will likely face, especially as it grows with the help of Silicon Valley. At the same time, its founders have shown they are open to change.
In January, Gelman and Kassan announced a new gender policy.
“With a growing number of members who identify as transgender or beyond the gender binary, we want to make sure that we are as inclusive a community as possible,” they wrote. “We’ve made some internal updates and adopted written membership policies to ensure that our staff is trained not to make assumptions about someone’s identity based on how they present, or to ask prospective members or guests to self-identify.”
“While The Wing will always be a space designed for women with a women’s-focused mission,” they added, “you may see folks at The Wing who express their gender in a variety of ways.”
The Wing cited the new policy in its motion to dismiss Pietrangelo’s suit, arguing that Pietrangelo’s complaint was rendered moot by the fact that applicants will now “be evaluated based on their commitment to The Wing’s mission, regardless of their perceived gender identity.” (The Wing told Vox that its “policy update has nothing to do whatsoever with Mr. Pietrangelo’s suit.”)
With its new policy, “The Wing is not only affirming the womanhood of trans women, they’re also affirming the personhood of nonbinary folks like me,” said Jacob Tobia, a Wing member and the author of Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story, whom The Wing asked to review its announcement of the policy.
In some ways, a visit to The Wing is a reminder of the things so many women lack in their daily lives: a safe place to conduct business without fear of harassment, a way to meet mentors who can help them in their careers, a private room for mothers to pump. By offering these things, the Wing is providing an enormous service to those who can become members. For those without the means or luck to snag a membership, though, it remains out of reach.
Sow, the Call Your Girlfriend host, says she and her fellow Wing members are capable of thinking critically about the company’s contradictions.
“Nobody who goes to the Wing is naive to the fact that feminists have to contend with a capitalist society,” she said.
Sow added that she supports critiques of The Wing, as long as they’re made in good faith.
“I think that divisiveness among women is actually very healthy,” she explained, “but it has to be grounded in truth and fact and context.”