Bringing Gender Equity To The Coworking Movement: A Q&A With The Founders Of Women Who Cowork

LS & IK
Women Who Cowork is a global alliance of 400 female coworking space operators and managers, founded by Iris Kavanagh (left) and Laura Shook Guzman(right)
  • Women Who Cowork officially became a professional group in 2017 by hosting its first meetup at GCUC USA in New York City
  • Women Who Cowork was founded by Iris Kavanagh and Laura Shook Guzman in order to bring visibility to the women powering the coworking movement, and support female founders in creating successful, sustainable coworking spaces
  • The organization will host its first leadership retreat this weekend in Austin

In 2008, Laura Shook Guzman opened Soma Vida, the first coworking space in Austin, Texas. Eight years later, she was building a directory of women-owned coworking spaces when she connected with Iris Kavanagh, the founding community manager for NextSpace and coworking consultant at Coworking with Iris. Passionate advocates for female entrepreneurship and gender equity, Shook Guzman and Kavanagh created Women Who Cowork, an international alliance with 400 members around the world.

Allwork.space chatted with Shook Guzman and Kavanagh about the need to create a space for female founders and managers of coworking spaces, how women have shaped the coworking movement from the start, and the upcoming Women Who Cowork Leadership Retreat February 23-25 in Austin, Texas. Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Allwork.Space: Let’s start at the beginning. What was the inspiration for the Women Who Cowork?

Laura Shook Guzman: In 2016, right before the International Coworking Day celebration, I went online to look at Deskmag’s Coworking Timeline to see some of their historical pieces of coworking.

At the time, I was looking for more female founders of coworking spaces. I wanted to know what the other women were up to, and I wanted to know how to find out which spaces were female founded. I thought maybe I could discover that from looking at the Coworking Wiki, looking at the Coworking Visa program and looking at the Deskmag timeline.

After going through Deskmag’s history markers of coworking, I realized it’s a very strong his-story and there wasn’t a lot of her-story. I knew the women were doing incredible work, but I didn’t know who they were and how to find them. That inspired me to find out where we were on that timeline. I put a message out on the Coworking Google Group and asked any female founders to contact me because I wanted to do a blog post and put them all in it. People started responding and it blew my mind how many of us were out there.

Allwork.Space: I remember that initial post and the big response you got. It seemed like women founders were hungry for representation and connection. As soon as you put the word out, it was like a magnet.

And it wasn’t women just naming themselves. There were male coworking space owners and operators naming women-owned spaces. That support was awesome. Iris reached out to me to say she was excited that I was compiling the list and wanted to talk about it. She wanted to feature me on her podcast, Coworking with Iris.

Allwork.Space: Did you two know each other before that?

Iris Kavanagh: Laura and I think it’s possible that we met at the very first coworking unconference that was hosted by Loosecubes in Austin in 2010. But this was our first true connection. I thought Conjunctured, which has since closed, was the first coworking space in Austin. If I had known that Conjunctured was not the first coworking space in Austin, I would have known that Laura’s was.

LSG: Liz Elam [founder of Link Coworking and producer of the Global Coworking Unconference Conference (GCUC)] calls Soma Vida the Austin original coworking space. We opened in June of 2008 and Conjunctured opened in July of 2008. Any of us that were formed between 2008 and 2010 call ourselves the Austin original spaces. I’m the longest operating coworking space in Austin and I recently realized that I’m the first female founder in Texas.

Allwork.Space: Iris, what was it about Laura’s search to find and connect female founders that appealed to you?

IK: My own story is that I was the woman who propped up men in their companies for so many years. I helped so many men build their startups and always as the second-in-command—always the woman behind the man running the show. At NextSpace, we had an amazing culture that was led by women because we had an employer that believed in giving women an opportunity. But, again, that was a man giving women an opportunity.

The majority of the people in our company who ran the coworking spaces, and the people who were best suited to run the spaces, were women. I found that incredibly fascinating and I loved that we were a majority female-led company.

When I was fired by NextSpace, by a man whose company I had built, I left with nothing but my experience and a small severance package. I told myself that was the last time that would happen to me. I put everything aside for the company, including my kids’ lives, and I walked away with nothing but the experience on my back.

[Editor’s note: In 2017, Pacific Workplaces acquired NextSpace and has partnered with Kavanagh, who is managing the transition in the Berkeley NextSpace and helping create a hybrid model bridging NextSpace coworking and traditional Pacific Workplaces offerings.

Allwork.Space: So shining a light on the women who were driving the coworking movement resonated pretty deeply with you. I know you were already featuring women founders and coworking pioneers on your podcast at the time you connected with Laura.

IK: The first three interviews I did were with women. When I got to Felina Hansen from Hera Hub, I realized that it’s women who are propelling the coworking movement forward in this way. I really wanted to highlight the stories of the female coworking space owners.

I told my business consultant I wanted to do a sub-series within my podcast series about the women running their own spaces, and women-focused coworking spaces. He said, “No, I don’t think you need to do that. Don’t water it down too much. That’s really niche.” He convinced me not to retitle the show, but I knew there was something there.

Around that time, I was talking to a friend who had been an early member at NextSpace. She told me what a boy’s club it had been there in the beginning, and how important it was for female entrepreneurs to have access to tools and resources.

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All this was happening in June and July of 2016. Then I saw Laura’s post in the Coworking Google Group and I knew I had to interview her. In that first conversation with Laura I was like, “Will you be my friend? I want to do this with you.”

LSG: I remember Iris asking me what my future plan was for the project and my response was basically that we should do something together.

Allwork.Space: How did Women Who Cowork grow from an idea and a loose community of female founders and space owners into something more organized?

LSG: Women Who Cowork was an informal, loosely formed Facebook group at first. In that first Google Group post, I invited female space owners to join the group so we could discover and connect to one another on an informal platform.

Women Who Cowork really became a professional group when we decided to host a meetup at GCUC USA in New York City in 2017. Liz gave us the mic to announce Women Who Cowork for the first time as an organization. Our greater plan is that it will eventually evolve into a more structured alliance or association.

Allwork.Space: What potential did you see then for Women Who Cowork, beyond giving women a platform to meet each other?

IK: At NextSpace, I felt like an island, even surrounded by 250 members. Those 250 members were wonderful, and they had no idea what I did on a daily basis. There was nobody there to support me, as a business operator, in the same way that I supported all the other business operators.

As we grew the company and team, I put together a series of calls and check-in systems so the different community managers around our network had the ability to collaborate and connect. When Laura and I met, I was offering community manager masterminds and also working with the LEXC [League of Extraordinary Coworking Spaces] team, so I immediately understood what she was going for.

I advocated for Women Who Cowork not just being the founders. I didn’t have any evidence to support this at the time, but anecdotally I was pretty sure the majority of people running coworking spaces were women, even if they were majority male-owned. We now know from research done last year that that is the case. That’s when we opened the group up to be for both the founders and community managers, with an understanding that the needs for both groups are different.

LSG: Our plan is to offer more nuanced support for those different roles, because we know they have different needs. It’s a perfect pairing: Iris is able to bring the perspective of the community manager and I’m able to bring the perspective of the space owner.

Allwork.Space: The coworking movement prides itself on openness and inclusion and diversity. Women Who Cowork says, ‘We’re over here doing this thing that’s just for us.’ How does the group fit into the larger coworking movement?

IK: It is a challenging thing to do, to claim a space. I am many people in the world—I’m a mother, I’m a coworking pioneer, I’m a former dancer, I’m a cook and I love to eat. And, I’m a woman and a human being. I’m not any one of those things, I’m all of those things combined.

As a person in the coworking movement, I am both part of the global coworking movement and I’m a woman in the coworking movement. To me, that is all-inclusive of who I am and who the movement is. As a woman, I have specific needs that are met by surrounding myself with other women who have similar life experiences and stories. They inspire me to be better at what I do.

I get that across the board, regardless of who I’m with, but I especially get that when I can be 100% myself in the room and say, “Oh my God, ladies, such a crazy day with my kids. I’m trying to juggle it all, to keep my clients happy, and work on my side gig. I don’t think I can do it today.”  And the women in the room say, “Yeah, you got this.”

If I’m in a co-ed group, I’m going to feel like I’m complaining if I say that. I might not be complaining, or maybe it is complaining. Mostly it’s just me needing to be seen—to have somebody see me and see everything that I’m trying to accomplish in this small amount of daylight that I have to accomplish it in.

I want to add that it was really important for me that this group be an inclusive group. I expressed concerns as we were forming that all our language and outreach be, not toward women, but toward people who identify as female. I want to see everybody who feels like a female in this world has representation in this group. That was really important for me that we have representation and inclusivity around culture, ethnicity and gender—across the gender spectrum.

LSG: When we’ve been questioned about why it’s so important for us to create safe space for women, I think about it on a bigger scale. Systemically, whether you look at race or gender or all the different types of marginalization that people face, when a dominant group has disbanded and caused harm to a minority group in any way, the minority group has the right to organize into reconnection in order to heal what has been disregarded or unseen about their value.

There are a lot of questions in the media now about why women are gathering; why black people are gathering; why black lives matter. It’s because the dominant group has caused harm and they need to step away and stop asking to be involved in everything. They have had access and it’s time for them to step aside and let other people heal together. Then the world comes back into connection, but they need to give some space. They need to step back and watch and learn.

Allwork.Space: We know there are systemic problems holding women back. Another side of the Women Who Cowork conversation is that women work, collaborate, lead and run businesses differently than men do.

IK: Laura frequently cites studies that show that in a co-ed situation, girls are less likely to speak up and offer ideas. But when you put girls together in an all-girl learning environment, they are much more likely to share ideas. The creativity and the productivity of the girls is a lot higher in that environment.

There are plenty of women-in-business resources out there, and the majority of our members are also participating in those groups. But none of those resources speak to what it means to be a coworking space operator or manager. Coworking is such a different business model than any business manager or business coach out there is going to understand.

Allwork.Space: The first official Women Who Cowork event is a leadership retreat this weekend in Austin. How did you decide to have the first big event be a retreat?

LSG: We don’t often infuse the values of sustainability and self-care into leadership, but it’s one of the more challenging roles we’re going to play in our careers. Then there’s the work-life, wellness, balance, integration with family, caretaking aspect. Women leadership really needs to look at sustainability: How are we sustaining our efforts? How are we fueling ourselves?

We can’t just keep giving and giving and giving without stopping and recharging ourselves. With the energy we need to keep doing this great work in the world, we wanted the retreat to focus on inspiring one another and also giving each other an opportunity to rest. That’s where our tagline, “Rest is for the Resilient” came from. There’s a lot of responsibility all these women are carrying on their shoulders.

Allwork.Space: What’s the big picture vision for Women Who Cowork? What would you most like to see?

LSG: Gender equity for women in business.

IK: We know alliances make coworking spaces much more visible than they can be on their own. Alliances also provide a network of founders and community managers and resources for members to learn how to best run their businesses and sustain themselves while running their businesses.

The big picture vision for Women Who Cowork is to have a global alliance of women-owned coworking spaces, and women coworking managers who are connecting with each other, providing support, gaining access to resources, services, funding and community in a way that promotes their business, helps them run a better business and provides visibility to them in both the press and the people in coworking.