The Wing co-founder admits the co-working space upheld 'the kind of social inequality we set out to upend'

WASHINGTON,DC-APR9: Audrey Gelman, the founder of The Wing, a women's only co-working space and organization, April 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. The Wing started in NYC and DC is their first location outside of New York. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Audrey Gelman, the former CEO of The Wing who resigned in June, today posted a letter she sent to former employees of The Wing last week. In it, Gelman apologized for not taking action to combat mistreatment of women of color at The Wing. She also acknowledged that her drive for success and scaling quickly "came at the expense of a healthy and sustainable culture that matched our projected values, and workplace practices that made our team feel valued and respected."

That meant, Gelman said, The Wing "had not subverted the historical oppression and racist roots of the hospitality industry; we had dressed it up as a kindler [sic], gentler version."

Here are some other highlights from her letter:

  • "Members' needs came first, and those members were often white, and affluent enough to afford The Wing's membership dues."

  • "White privilege and power trips were rewarded with acquiescence, as opposed to us doubling down on our projected values."

  • "When the realization set in that The Wing wasn't institutionally different in the ways it had proclaimed, it hurt more because the space we claimed was different reinforced the age-old patterns of women of color and especially Black women being disappointed by white women and our limited feminist values."

A public apology from Gelman and The Wing COO Lauren Kassan is just one of the demands from members of Flew the Coup, a group of former staffers at The Wing. Another demand is for The Wing to drop the non-disclosure agreements in their contracts.

"Collectively, we have faced racism and anti-LGBTQIA rhetoric from management, HQ staff, and members," the group wrote on Instagram back in June. "We have faced physical and psychological violence within the various Wing locations, and discrimination when attempting to move up within the company."

The group went on to say that while The Wing was built on the idea of being a safe and inclusive place for women and non-binary folks, "we have continuously seen the exact opposite of this mission."

The Wing has raised $117.5 million from a number of investors, including New Enterprise Associates, AlleyCorp, Sequoia Capital, Serena Williams and Kerry Washington. At TechCrunch Disrupt, Washington told me a bit about how she felt about the drama at The Wing.

“Well, you know, I’m not new to scandal, so there’s that,” Washington said. "I was and I am really deeply still inspired by the original vision of the company. And, I think like a lot of companies in this time, because of the several pandemics that we’re facing, whether it’s our awareness around racial injustice, or COVID, lots of people are in a moment of recalibration and self-reflection. So I think that there is incredible space to improve the dynamics. And as somebody who’s an investor, as a woman of color, it’s important to me that there is increased transparency and also accountability.”

Over the past few months, Washington said her role as an investor has been “really just supporting leadership in this transition,” as well as expressing to those leaders a “deep desire” for transparency and accountability.

The Wing, like many other tech companies, struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, The Wing laid off or furloughed "the majority" of its workers, the company said. Then, in July, The Wing laid off another 56 people.

As part of Flew the Coup's organizing, it's also raising money to help support people who were laid off from The Wing. As of today, the group has raised more than $15,000 for its grant program. Its goal is to raise $100,000.

We've reached out to The Wing and will update this story if we hear back.