After a rocky several months that included a business model decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, mass layoffs, and employees speaking up about a disconnect between the company’s feminist branding and treatment of female staff, Audrey Gelman is stepping down as CEO of The Wing, the women’s co-working business she co-founded in 2016. The Wing confirmed her departure from the role to Fortune.
Gelman, a former staffer in New York politics, was a high-profile chief executive who frequently represented her company in the media, while co-founder and chief operating officer Lauren Kassan more often worked behind the scenes. Kassan will step into a newly created “Office of the CEO” along with senior vice president of operations Ashley Peterson and senior vice president of marketing Celestine Maddy, reporting to the company’s board of directors, The Wing confirmed.
“The Wing remains a vital resource for thousands of women navigating their path to success,” the company said in a statement to Fortune. “But the moment calls for a rethinking of how we meet their needs moving forward and for new leadership that can guide The Wing into the future.”
“My hope is that this accelerated transition will help rebuild trust, restore faith, and remake The Wing into something we can all feel proud of,” Gelman reportedly wrote in an email to The Wing’s staff Thursday morning.
Staffers began tweeting on Thursday morning the phrase “Audrey Gelman’s resignation is not enough” and said they had presented a list of demands to company leadership intended to correct the fact that “The Wing doesn’t practice the intersectional feminism that it it preaches.”
The Wing launched in 2016 as a physical space that would serve as a pit-stop for women between “work and werk,” but transitioned to serve primarily as a community-based membership platform that members could use as a physical workspace. While the startup initially limited membership—and guests—to women, after encountering legal hurdles, it redefined its membership criteria as open to anyone supportive of its mission to support women.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, upended The Wing’s business. As its dozen physical spaces closed (the startup has opened branches in six U.S. cities and London and, before the pandemic, had plans to open nine more in 2020), The Wing saw “95% of our revenue disappear overnight,” Gelman said in April. The company began offering its programming—member meet-ups and talks by prominent women—online. However, it couldn’t transition the part of its membership that justified $2,700 annual membership fees—its physical spaces—to remote work.
The company laid off half its headquarters staff and almost all teams that worked at its physical spaces in early April.
The Wing’s mission and branding both center on the ideals and language of feminism, from Gelman’s appearance while pregnant on the cover of the magazine Inc., a milestone for the business press, to the investors it courted: soccer players from the U.S. Women’s National Team and Hollywood figures like Kerry Washington involved in the anti-sexual harassment organization Time’s Up. But in March, the New York Times published an investigation into The Wing’s culture, in which employees said that leadership didn’t live up to those feminist ideals when it came to their own female workers. Several of the criticisms focused on Gelman specifically. That piece was followed by a Wall Street Journal investigation featuring similar claims in April. Criticism in both pieces highlighted that especially women of color who worked for The Wing were mistreated.
Journalist Kara Swisher reported that Gelman would retain her seat on The Wing’s board of directors, which the company has not yet confirmed. Members of The Wing’s board include GV general partner Jessica Verrilli, who replaced WeWork chief legal officer Jennifer Berrent after WeWork exited its stake in The Wing amid the collapse of its own co-working business and a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against WeWork, and Sequoia Capital partner Jess Lee.
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