You only need to talk to Naj Austin, our October Salon guest and the 28-year-old founder of Ethel’s Club, for about three minutes to understand why the space has found such rapid traction. Naj announced her idea for a social and wellness club centered on people of color on Instagram in January, and had 600 signups to her mailing list within 7 days. A write-up in the New York Times and high profile investments from Roxane Gay and other notable investors soon followed.
Ethel's Club found buzz because it’s a great idea whose time has more than come. But it’s taken off because of Austin’s savvy as a business woman, whose talent for building strong teams has helped create a product that speaks to the needs of a broad community. The company has merged a strong sense of purpose with a scalable business model which has impressed investors and members alike.
Ethel's Club opens in Brooklyn in November, but Powerbitches will have an opportunity to see the space - and meet Naj - at our next Salon on October 22. Click here for more information and to secure your tickets.
“People of color want to be in spaces and rooms that give them access, but there’s a specific kind of burden people of color walk around with when navigating white spaces.” - Naj Austin
Powerbitches: How did you come up with the idea for Ethel's Club?
Naj Austin: I spent the first five years of my career in the real estate and tech world. I worked at a furnished rental housing startup, creating beautiful spaces that people could bounce between. I was Head of Operations, and I led everything from finding the landlords, to negotiating leases, to bringing the apartments to life The company was great but unfortunately we were unable to raise enough capital to continue growing the business. After that I worked with a founder with a finance background, who wanted me to come on and lead product for a company that was going to democratise real estate.
It was when I was working at those companies that I started thinking about the creation a of space for someone who looked like me. I was searching for a therapist of color and I couldn’t find one. Trying to find a therapist is not as easy as asking your friend who their dermatologist is -- it’s much more personal than that. I thought it would be compelling if you could meet with therapists of color inside of a beautifully-designed space. When I started thinking about how to maximize square footage, I added in concepts like a cafe space and boutique that carried POC items -- that organic thinking is how Ethel’s Club was born.
It was always part of the vision to embed wellness into the space from the very beginning, which is why we describe Ethel’s Club as a social and wellness club. We’ve strayed away from coworking because I don’t think the world needs another coworking company. We’re offering something much bigger and engaging than desk rentals. We wanted Ethel's Club to be a community where you know everyone and actually talk to and connect with people while you’re here. If you work together too, that’s a plus. But we are not designing the club to be a place where you come to bury your head for 8 hours.
PB: When you announced Ethel's Club in January, it immediately grabbed people’s attention, from the 600 people who signed up to be notified about the space when it opens, to the New York Times and Roxane Gay. Why do you think that was?
NA: It’s funny, I was just in a meeting and we were trying to unpack this question. I think Ethel’s Club has resonated with so many people, because we are building something for a group that is so often left out of the conversation. And we are doing it with intentionality and style. We’re focusing on a marginalized group of people who rarely have the spotlight and often do not have anything created for them. We are forcibly changing that narrative, and it has excited people for that very reason. First a social club designed with me in mind -- what’s next? Our brand has the potential to cover every vertical and every industry - the vision is to be much larger than our clubhouses.
PB: You’ve talked about the overwhelming lack of representation of people of color in other social clubs and coworking spaces in New York City. Can you tell me more about what you mean by that? What has been your experience when you’ve been inside those spaces?
NA: People of color want to be in spaces and rooms that give them access, but there’s a specific kind of burden people of color walk around with when navigating white spaces. There is a specific emotion tied to being the only one, or the “token”. It’s a deeper burnout than just working hard or working all of the time. Operating successfully in those spaces requires more of us. We’re creating a different community that will never demand that of you.
“If you can find investors who believe in you, and who understand the product and the why behind it, they can be invaluable in terms of directing the company and helping you decide what comes next.” - Naj Austin
PB: How did the work you did before Ethel's Club help to shape what you’re doing now?
NA: With this first clubhouse, we’re creating a blueprint for what an Ethel's Club is, so that we can replicate it 100 more times. The excitement of creating the first space is figuring out what those elements are. My previous roles taught me a lot about operations, including all of the small things that consumers don’t realize are built into a product that make it delightful. Small things like creating our guest policy, designing signage and meeting our vendors and suppliers are all things that make Ethel’s Club tick. Working at startup companies before means that I have the deep experience of being the person who had to make hard decisions when it comes to operations. People get finicky about chairs, couches, and tables, but I’ve done those things fifty times over. This company still has its own complexities, but I’m way more adept at the logistical side of things than I would have been without those positions.
PB: The process of securing investors is one that many women entrepreneurs find challenging - especially if you’re creating a business with an additional impact focus, or if you don’t come from a class background that means you’re familiar with those environments. How did you navigate that process?
NA: I wasn’t familiar with those environments, either, but I made sure to put myself in rooms where I knew people would understand the significance of what I was building. As a black woman pitching to a room of white male investors, I often found myself explaining things like systemic racism or inherent bias and less time talking about the business. So I began to meet with investors who didn’t need me to explain why a safe space was needed to empower people of color. Ultimately, venture is like high school. If enough people like your company, everyone else likes you too. It’s funny to know that and see it literally unfold in front of you. But, if you can find investors who believe in you, and who understand the product and the why behind it, they can be invaluable in terms of directing the company and helping you decide what comes next. I’m super lucky that our investors are people I text -- all of the time actually. I’ll write to them and say, “I’m thinking about this crazy idea -- what do you think?”
Naj Austin will be in conversation with Powerbitches founder Rachel Hills at our next Salon, on October 22 in Brooklyn. Click here for more information and to secure your tickets.