Success stories can seem just as fantastical as the fairy tales you (may have) loved growing up: Bold career woman finds herself in the right place at the right time, and poof, her
fairy godmother mentor snaps her fingers, transforming our hero into an overnight success who brings home a 7-figure salary, jet-sets the world spreading her you-can-have-it-all gospel, all while looking awesome and Instagramming the whole thing. Umm...really? Why do we so rarely hear the other side of the story — the false starts, the waves of doubt, the failures, and the fuck-ups? Those late-night worries and, occasionally, breakthroughs that are so relatable to the rest of us?
Introducing Self-Made, Refinery29's newest column spotlighting the real stories that fueled success — the wins, the fails, and the curveballs —proving there's no one path to getting what you want.
Audrey Gelman, 30, is the CEO and co-founder of The Wing, a women-only social club and co-working space. Audrey and her partner, Lauren Kassan, opened the first location in the fall of 2016, when the future looked bright and many of us believed there would soon be a woman in the White House. It didn't turn out that way, but Clinton's loss arguably set into motion a loud resurgence of the women's rights movement. The Wing — and spaces like it — became more relevant than ever.
Audrey and Lauren have seen huge success since they opened the first location with 200 members: a third New York City location opened this spring, as well as one in Washington, D.C. The New York Time reports locations in L.A. and San Francisco will soon follow. The Wing has also courted some controversy, including an investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights over concerns the club violates NYC anti-discrimination laws.
Refinery29 talked with Audrey about the investigation, the unglamorous realities of being a small business owner, and what she would be doing if she wasn't running The Wing.
In your opinion, what is the definition of being self-made?
Growing up in New York you quickly learn the difference between the kids who are inheriting trust funds and the kids who are figuring it out for themselves. I went to public school; my mom is a therapist and my dad is a scientist, and I always just propelled myself forward because I would have died with boredom any other way.
Can you speak a little to the investigation by the New York City Commission on Human Rights for possible discrimination violations by The Wing? Were you surprised to get this kind of negative attention?
Because of the history of women in this country — and even more so in this time we live in — it is important to protect and foster the work of The Wing and similar spaces that give women a positive and safe space to thrive. Human rights include empowering women not taking more away from them. The law recognises this too and is consistent with The Wing's values and mission.
You closed a $32-million round of funding in November, and Forbes noted it was one of the biggest Series B rounds by female founders. What challenges did you face in raising money? And why do you think your investors were so excited about your business and vision?
I’m particularly proud of our Series B raise because my business partner Lauren was eight months pregnant at the time. The percentage of venture capital dollars that go to female founded companies is abysmal, but I’m hopeful for the future that number will grow.
Our investors thought we had a unique idea that was totally new. They believed in our mission to advance women through community and trusted that we had the ability to scale the business while staying true to that mission.
What quality do you think you possess that has made you a good candidate for self-making your destiny?
You have to be driven, resourceful, not take no for an answer, and have the nerve to do things that haven’t been done. I think you also have to be comfortable not being everything to everyone, which is something that we often expect of women in a way we don’t of men.
Tell us a lesson you keep trying to learn, that you hope to eventually master, business or otherwise?
I’m trying to learn how to cook, a skill that requires the ability to follow instructions and practice patience, two areas where I could improve.
You started your career working on Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, and then within NYC politics. How did your experience in that world impact your concept for The Wing?
When I had the idea for The Wing, I loved the idea of getting to work in a space that was adjacent to politics in the sense that I was advancing political issues I cared about, while having the creativity and freedom of being in the private sector.
What aspect of your path do you think has been the most motivational to other young women coming up through the ranks?
I have a pretty non-traditional background for a founder, having worked in politics and public affairs before — so maybe that you don’t need to have gone to business school or worked in the startup world to go out on your own and build something.
You met your cofounder, Lauren, when you were first developing the idea for The Wing. How did you know you'd found the right partner?
Lauren is really the ying to my yang: Her experience and work style is totally different than mine, and we balance each other perfectly. Lauren’s background was in building and operating physical businesses, so she leads our real estate, construction, and field operations. We make all of our big decisions together. I really recommend having a partner in building a business; I think I’d feel very lonely without her.
Being self-made means committing to self-care, too, to manage the process as well as all the unexpected pivots that come with it. How do you fuel and refresh yourself when shit really starts to get hard?
Just living in the world in 2018 is incredibly stressful, and running a business on top of that can be a rollercoaster of emotions. I keep close to my therapist, to my friends, to my mom, and I make time to go to sleep early, rest on the weekends, and hang out with my cats.
What's your Self-Made Mantra, no matter where you might be in the process?
“For me, sitting still is harder than any kind of work.” - Annie Oakley
What are some unexpected challenges of running your own business?
I think entrepreneurship has been fetishised as a career path in the media lately, but the parts of it you don’t see are the less glamorous aspects, which is about 99% of the job. Running a business is full of challenges — things like getting permits, maintaining the HVAC and sprinkler system, doing inventory — and I have a ton of respect for anyone who operates any kind of small business.
What are you generally doing at midnight?
How do you actively work to make sure that The Wing is a diverse and inclusive club, while still maintaining its exclusivity or "specialness"?
Diversity is at the core of how The Wing’s community is curated, and if you’ve ever been to The Wing you’d see that our members come from a wide cross-section of professions and backgrounds. We do so to ensure that The Wing have varied perspectives and experiences so they can collaborate and help one another grow and achieve success.
Why do you think a women's-only social club is more important than ever? And what do you think The Wing's birth says about our future?
We live in a world where the rules are still predominantly written by men. Our mission is to empower women and provide them with the space they need to build community, something the world needs now more than ever. Our colleagues and members at The Wing remind us every day of the ability women have to cultivate incredibly rich and rewarding relationships with each other.
We believe competing in the workplace is a thing of the past, and that success happens when women have a forum where they can network, collaborate, and advance their own and each other’s pursuits.
Answer this: If I weren't co-founding and guiding The Wing to world domination, I would be....
Running for local office.
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