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Ethel’s Club launched last year as a new kind of coworking space—one that actively celebrates people of color and a diverse membership. In the wake of the reckoning at other private business clubs, such as The Wing, the current moment should have been ideal for a place like Ethel’s Club to shine in the public spotlight as a prime counteroffering and better way of doing business.
But COVID-19 has gotten in the way of just about everything. Even as some regions are beginning to reopen, the future of coworking spaces remains uncertain.
Fortune spoke with founder and CEO Naj Austin for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, about how the outbreak has affected her business, her thoughts on the future, and how she is working through the pandemic.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: Ethel’s Club was founded with the purpose of both celebrating but also better serving people of color. What inspired you to launch the business, and what can prospective members expect at this private club versus other coworking spaces?
I have always craved and sought out spaces and communities that made me feel safe. Whenever I enter a space, I always hope that I’m able to leave my burdens at the door and feel fully comfortable in all facets of my identity. However, as a black woman, this isn’t usually my reality. When I started to look particularly within the landscape of social clubs and other third spaces, I found this to be even less of the case. That’s when the wheels really began to turn and the idea of Ethel’s Club became less of an idea and more of a necessity that had to be created.
Our clubhouse—both online and IRL—truly considers and understands what it’s like to be a person of color navigating the world. Our community is meant to inspire, heal, and empower.
When nonessential businesses were shut down in March, there wasn’t much wiggle room for private clubs and coworking spaces given that everyone was forced to self-isolate. With so many people working from home, what has it been like to sustain the business over the past several weeks and months?
We have a digital clubhouse where members can pay $17 per month to access three events every weekday, connect with and DM other members around the world, join our monthly book club, writing group, or design club, and stay up to date with our feed of articles and content centering marginalized voices.
We’ve had to change our focal point from Brooklyn to the world, and we’ve embraced the growth; we now have members as far as Norway.
Ethel’s Club was founded just last year. How does a shutdown of this nature affect the future of the business, from growing your membership base to raising capital?
We’ve always been nimble, fast-moving, and understood what our audience needed and expected from us as a company. We were able to provide a resource in the time of COVID that was difficult and or frustrating for them to find elsewhere. We curate everything from events, music, films, articles—you name it. As a member, you get access to that experience.
Now that select cities and states are starting to reopen, how is Ethel’s Club adjusting to whatever the new normal might be? Are there any kinds of social distancing measures being put into place? And how could this affect the social nature of the private club for the foreseeable future?
We are definitely following every safety measurement. We will open in phases and will always have an open line of communication with our members to ensure they’re comfortable and feel safe within the clubhouse.
Over the past few weeks, there has been a much stronger and more concerted effort on social media to encourage consumers to support black-owned businesses. At the same time, there is the worry that while this might offer a much-needed sales bump during an economic downturn, nonblack consumers will not commit to this effort in the long term. What can other members of the business community do to amplify and sustain support for black-owned businesses?
I think that people have to put in the work. These black businesses were here before the boost, and we will be here after. The ask right now is to see us for who we are: smart, savvy business owners with compelling products that you should buy on that account alone.
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