"Good News" In Brooklyn: A Black Female Founder Pivots To Meet The Challenges Of Coronavirus
For startups, as for all small businesses, this is a time of great upheaval. In January 2019, Naj Austin launched her social wellness clubhouse for people of color in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Just over a year later, something unthinkable happened — the Coronavirus pandemic. She shut the doors of Ethel's Club even before New York State implemented its stay-at-home directive.
Ethel's Club is a third space distinct from the home (first space) or work (second space). A third space is a communal space, such as a club, sports arena, or museum where a person can experience a transformative sense of self, identity, and relation to others. Research finds similarity breeds connection. Race and ethnicity are two ways people relate to each other. The more significant challenges that people of color (POC) face in the world bond them to each other, and make them want to share and help each other.
POC cannot forget that police arrested two Black men who were sitting at a Starbucks in Philadelphia's tony Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. They were waiting for a business meeting. Or the 11 women — all members of the same book club and all but one Black — getting kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train for being too loud.
Members of Ethel's also tend to be people who are founders and entrepreneurs or people who work for startups, are freelancers. Some even work in large corporations. They are often multi-hyphenates, that is, people, especially in the creative industry who have several roles, such as singer-songwriter, actor-director.
Austin has been fighting the odds since coming up with the idea of having space where marginalized communities could connect, socialize, chill, and be themselves. As a Black woman, the deck was stacked against her in terms of raising equity financing. Black women represent 42% of new women-owned businesses last year, according to American Express 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses.* That's three times their share of the female population (14%). Companies with at least one female founder raised only 11.8% of venture capital in 2019, according to Pitchbook. Only 4% of the female founders who raised equity financing were Black, according to 2018 ProjectDiane by digitalundivided. That makes Austin among the rare few.
Austin started with a rewards-based crowdfunding campaign on iFundWomen and raised $26,000 from 264 backers. They believed in what she was building, wanted to be a part of that journey. Sourcing from the crowd has always been an important part of how we built this space.
She chose iFundWomen because of the support and community. "For me, it was less about the type of crowdfunding [donation, rewards or investment] and more about who was going to be supportive through my journey," Austin admitted. "It [iFundWomen] has the best support system, including a Slack channel where I could connect with women who had run campaigns or were currently running campaigns to get advice." Later, she raised $1 million from angels and venture capitalists.
Ethel's Club is named after Austin's grandmother, Ethel Lucas, who lived in Edison, NJ. All kids in the neighborhood viewed her as their grandmother, Austin reminisced. Her house was where you went for food, to play a game, or hang out. "I wanted the name of the club to stand for something bigger and more meaningful than that of a cool, hip startup," she said.
Shannon Maldonado, the founder of Philadelphia-based home and lifestyle shop YOWIE, designed the Clubhouse. The majority of the Club's furniture and decor come from POC artisans, makers, art curators, and designers. It's a space to get your senses stimulated by art, film, literature, performance, and discussion as well as to be healed through therapy, meditation, and yoga — all for POC by POC.
Small businesses with intimate physical space like Ethel's may feel the most acute impact of the coronavirus. "We had always planned for digital membership," said Austin. However, after announcing Ethel's would close until it was safe to be in a shared space, members started asking for a way to be connected to the community. Community becomes even more critical after a disaster. You feel anxious, fearful, sad, and irritable. You may have difficulty concentrating and sleeping. Taking care of your mental health is vitally important. She realized it was time to implement the digital plan.
This past Friday, Ethel's Club launched a digital membership, which includes live streams and video content broadcast three times a day. The key to keeping our communities uplifted and empowered during this time is consistency and connectivity. Every day, in the morning, afternoon, and evening, Ethel's Club will broadcast curated live content and interactive digital programming to members, along with hosting pre-recorded content throughout the rest of the day. The morning one is meant to ground members and set intentions for the day ahead. The midday stream, at 3 p.m. EST, is to help you focus when your mind starts to wander with the monotony of the day. The evening session celebrates the end of the day by bringing the community together through music and conversation.
While there is a waiting line to become a member of the physical space, there is no limit to the number of virtual members. And people from all over the country can join to get the support they need.
How will you get the community support you need?