A few dozen women gathered in a brick North Loop building — its entrance marked by pink balloons — for mimosas and a sneak peek.
There was no furniture yet. The floors were still covered in paper. But on a tour, the women were promised couches, tables and benches with a “hotel lobby or art gallery vibe.” A beauty bar packed with products for “all skin and hair types.” Space to work, to meet, to be in “boss mode.”
All without men around.
“If members need to bring men into the space,” said Liz Giel, gesturing to the unfinished conference room behind her, sliding doors will offer privacy, “so that our members will never have to see a dude.”
She winked. The women laughed.
Giel is one of four women who founded the Coven (thecovenmpls.com), which is, by its most basic definition, a co-working space for women and those who identify as nonbinary. But the founders envision much more than a collection of desks, more than a lack of men. They say they’re building a community that in the work world is tough to find — one where women gather to lift one another up.
“The trickiest part is trying to describe something that most women have never experienced,” said co-founder Bethany Iverson.
But something about their upstart resonates: More than 100 women have signed up for the Coven’s founding memberships, which cost $1,800 a year. Similar workspaces — with such names as SheWork and the Riveter — are popping up across the country, especially on the coasts.
The Twin Cities’ first women-only co-working space, ModernWell (modernwell.co), was launched in early January in a bright, Zen space in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis.
The spaces have different vibes and varying missions. Some feel like corporate offices, others like chic clubs. The common threads are women craving spaces to connect with other women, free of sexism.
The Coven opens to founding members this week and, in March, will co-host a celebration in honor of International Women’s Day.
“You could say it’s the election. You could say it’s the Women’s March,” said co-founder Erinn Farrell. “You could say it’s the #MeToo movement, Time’s Up. The reality is it’s all of these things.”
‘A resource for all women’
They’re conjuring a coven, so the co-founders welcome the term “witches.”
“Queens” works, too.
The four founders met through MPLS MadWomen, which Alex West Steinman co-founded to bring together women in advertising to discuss and fix workplace problems. “We were working toward some incremental change across our region,” she said. But despite a lot of “head-nodding” from leaders, “the transformational change we were looking for just wasn’t going to happen in our lifetime.”
So the friends talked about starting their own agency. Then something clicked: “Our heart wasn’t in advertising,” Steinman said. “Our heart was in supporting women.”
They began inviting to dinner dozens of women across the Twin Cities, running by them the idea of the Coven. (They joke that “we actually have binders of women,” Farrell said.) Hearing their stories, they realized that what they had experienced in the ad world was “unremarkable,” Farrell said. Women from all industries were fed up with the pushback, harassment and misogyny accepted in their workplaces.
Communications executive Candace Steele Flippin attended one of those lunches, hosted by a friend. At that time, she said, “there was a lot of discussion about women in our country,” some of it “quite polarizing.” But the Coven founders’ “sales pitch was really positive,” she said. They were fiercely focused on “what we could do together as women.”
As someone who wrote a book about the multigenerational workplace, she sees how the Coven speaks to millennials looking for a communal workspace that’s an extension of their lives. As an African-American woman, she loves how the Coven feels like “a place for all, regardless of their age or background or ethnicity.” So she signed on as a founding member.
With its of-the-moment marketing and fashionable founders, the Coven could feel like the Minneapolis version of the Wing, New York City’s exclusive social club and women-only co-working space known for its made-for-Instagram digs and lengthy waiting list. But the Coven’s co-founders chafed at how inaccessible such private clubs are.
“Our whole business is built around creating a resource for all women in the Twin Cities,” said Iverson, who left her career as an advertising executive to build the Coven. “But that is at odds with a private membership model.”
For every five paying members, the Coven is offering a scholarship spot. Women from historically marginalized backgrounds get priority. That move convinced many would-be members that the Coven was “walking the walk” when it comes to equity, diversity and the values they were espousing during events, said Adrienne Vitt, a founding member and director of communications and marketing for the nonprofit Northside Achievement Zone.
“I think women are conditioned … to believe there can only be one or a few of us in certain spaces,” Vitt said. “This space is designed counter to that. Everyone seems to be here in earnest to help each other out.”
A break from ‘the fight’
ModernWell advertises itself as “your go-to oasis.” On a recent morning, sunlight streamed through floor-to-ceiling windows and onto soft gray couches and white faux-leather pillows. As a writer, Julie Burton “yearned for a space and a place to feel connected to myself and a community of women.”
She hopes ModernWell will become a hub and “safe space” for women of all ages and backgrounds. So far, more than 75 women have joined. While the Coven has hosted events about art and activism, ModernWell’s gatherings tend to focus on wellness and writing. That’s partly because of Burton’s background: She co-founded the Twin Cities Writing Studio, a regular gathering of writers, bloggers and memoirists that meets at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. In the new space, which features a fireplace upstairs and a yoga studio downstairs, Burton recently hosted a packed “literary kickoff,” where authors discussed writing, publishing and “self-care for writers.”
Although she was spurred to create ModernWell after the election, Burton said, women also need a space to “get away from the fight,” she said. “Women have permission to do that here.” She added: “This space was not born out of anger. And it’s not about excluding men. It’s about elevating women.”
Still, she appreciated not having to think for a second about what men would want in the 5,200-square-foot building.
“We don’t have to have beer!” she exclaimed. “Or a Ping-Pong table.”
The Coven will feature a room for new mothers to pump. A kitchen with snacks from the Wedge Community Co-op. A hot pink mural with the faces of strong women through history — Frida Kahlo, Rihanna, Minnesota’s own Ilhan Omar. On a recent Saturday, founding members and curious friends perused the plans, pinned to the walls in colorful, patterned tape. They were in their 30s, mostly, with a range of titles.
A newly minted architect. The owner of a company creating small-batch beauty products. Two founders of a Somali culture ’zine.
A few freelancers and small-business owners said they joined the Coven for a place to work. But many had offices or studio spaces and were searching for something else. Gillian McLaughlin, who owns the screen-print shop Bitter Buffalo, doesn’t have time to spend in “another co-working space,” she said. “But for me to be able to push this mission forward, that was important to me.”
McLaughlin hopes that Coven members can be resources for one another, offering up their expertise and trading ideas. “I’ve been in the arts community in Minneapolis for a lot of years,” she said, “so I feel I have a lot to offer as far as helping women younger than me.”
She paused. “I paid a bunch of money to have friends, maybe,” she said, laughing, “to not be in my studio alone all day.”
“Or next to some strange man in the coffee shop,” chimed in Ashley Magnuson, 26. Networking at the Coven will be much more productive than in a coffee shop, she added. “’Cause I’m not going to network with that guy.”
Several of the women nodded.
From the other side of the room, Steinman looked at the circles of women that had formed over the course of the morning. The room buzzed with conversation and laughter. “We don’t have to facilitate much,” she said, nodding. “That’s what we love to do — connect women. But women do it on their own.”