Feeling Seen with Naj Austin
What does community mean? How do you build one? And why do they matter—particularly for people of color?
We chatted with Naj Austin this week to find out. She’s the founder Ethels Club, a new private membership club and workspace created by and for people of color. And while Ethels is definitely a spot where you can perch with your laptop for a few hours, it’s way more than coworking: we’re talking exhibits from artists of color, mental health programming designed to destigmatize therapy and connect members to therapists of color, and so much more.
The first Ethels Club is set to open in Brooklyn in October—and that launch can’t come soon enough for the thousands of people who’ve flocked to her waiting list (including early investor Roxane Gay). So we asked Naj how she’s making it happen, what it means to build a business and a community at the same time, and why she’s committed to offering more than just a desk and some wifi to her members.
People are looking for spaces where they can feel seen, celebrated, and find like-minded people in real life.—Naj Austin, founder of Ethels Club
We chat about:
- How Ethels Club went from a spark of an idea to an actual business with Naj as CEO
- Why Naj got fed up at typical investor meetings, and decided to raise funds from other people of color instead
- When and how she took the leap from employee with steady pay and predictability to running Ethels Club
- Why she thinks so many people are interested in a space like Ethels, which goes beyond a basic coworking spot
- Waiting for Beyoncé to call (🤞🤞🤞)
- Why you should find a group of your peers to chat through challenges and celebrate wins with—like therapy, it’ll help!
- Why Collective Strength (our community in Philly) is for women and femme or nonbinary-identifying folks—and we’re totally OK telling men to skip our events
- Fuck yeah to every single beach body out there (except Sara’s sunburned thighs)
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Katel LeDû And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Today we are talking about community—what it means, how to start building one, and why it matters so much to find other people like you. To help us out, we’ve invited Naj Austin on the show. Naj is the founder of a new private social club for people of color—it’s called Ethels Club— and it sounds really great.
SWB I really loved hearing about Ethels because it made me think about what community actually means to me. She’s going to talk in the interview about how she doesn’t like it when people just talk about Ethels as coworking, even though technically they will have the basics you need to go there and work. They have wifi, [laughs] but so does everything else. You can go to WeWork for that. But she is really talking about people joining Ethels because they want a space to grow and share their lives with people who are like them, they want programming that enables connection. And it really started giving me a lot of ideas for Collective Strength, the community that we’ve been working on together. We’re recording this episode a few hours before our second ever Collective Strength event where we have like 100 people coming. It’s amazing! But it’s also such a big responsibility.
KL It is! And I feel like this response—seeing so many people interested—is really incredible. It’s overwhelming to realize that there are so many folks who are feeling the same way we are, and are interested in what we are interested in, and that there’s an opportunity to deliver on that responsibility.
SWB Right! It just seems so clear based off of everything we heard from our first event, [laughs] as well as the kind of feedback we get from the show that there’s just this big unmet need for women and femme folks to feel more understood—to feel like they’re not the only ones struggling with something. Other people have similar experiences, other people are also stuck, other people are also burnt out. And I also think a big piece of it is being able to have a space where it’s okay to talk about it. I think, in fact, it’s crucial that we talk about it. There are so many people who don’t have that kind of professional circle or they don’t have a peer group or a community of practice where they can open up. Maybe they have those peers to talk about their actual work work with—you can bitch to other designers about clients or you can talk with your writer friends about having a pitch rejected. But when it comes to the deeper stuff about how you feel about work or issues you might be facing like harassment at work or being stuck unable to get a promotion, hitting that ceiling or pay inequity—those kinds of issues—there’s often so little space where people feel safe to bring that stuff up or they don’t know how their regular, professional peer network is going to react to that. So you get in the zone of, “am I alone in this? Am I the only one dealing with this?”
KL Yeah, and it’s so easy to kind of live in that zone. If you don’t find a peer group or community of practice like that and you can’t connect with folks on shared challenges or celebrations, and you might even lose sight of the fact that you’re not growing in the direction you want to.
SWB Right. I think once you start to feel more seen and understood, you can actually make better sense of your own experiences. I think it’s really hard to synthesize and move on from anything when you are just stuck in your own head. That’s why people go to therapy.
SWB [laughing] That’s why I go to therapy. But I think it’s true for professional issues too. If you’re stuck in your own head about it all of the time and you don’t have anybody you trust to talk to about it, then you just kind of stay there. But when you can hear other people talk about the same stuff you’re dealing with or even similar stuff, vaguely related stuff, I feel like you start to gain this perspective and then you start to reflect on yourself differently, and then you just get so much more clarity that can help you move forward and make the decisions you need to make.
KL Yeah! You find out more about yourself by connecting with other people.
SWB The other thing I really thought a lot about after talking with Naj was how important it is to have community spaces that aren’t necessarily for everyone. Like I’m never going to go to Ethels Club.
SWB It’s not for me.
SWB It’s for black and brown people. [laughs] And it sounds really rad and I would love to see what she creates there, I would love to understand the vibe of that community. But the reality is I’m never going to understand the vibe of that community because if I were there, I would actually change the vibe of the community, right?
SWB So, I am really glad a space is going to exist that doesn’t just center people of color in its programming but literally creates a place where they don’t have to negotiate the presence of well-intentioned white people. That changes the dynamics of the place and they don’t necessarily mean to do that.
KL Yeah, it absolutely does. It sounds amazing and I’m personally excited about everything Ethels will offer, but I’m really even more excited for the people who Ethels Club is for. It matters that you and I will not take up space there.
SWB Right, right, right, right, right. Yes! And there’s been some pushback to this idea that there are spaces that aren’t meant for men or aren’t meant for white people—that it’s somehow just as unfair to exclude some groups from these kinds of spaces as it is for these old men’s only clubs where you’d go and smoke cigars and make business deals to exist, right?
SWB And the thing is, I don’t believe that, I totally disagree with that, and the conversation with Naj really cemented why it is that I don’t see things that way. Which was really helpful because just this week someone from the Indy Hall community—the space where we host our events—questioned our decision to ask men not to come. She said she was really uncomfortable with us framing it that we were asking men specifically not to join, and she said that it should really be that women and non-binary folks are centered, but that all are welcome. And for me, the problem with that is that in our particular context, our number one priority is that the people who this is for feel enough trust and safety that they feel like they can show up and be honest, that they can talk about difficult subjects, that they can be vulnerable with one another. And for a lot of women, if men are in the room and we are talking about things like facing systemic discrimination at work or handling other kinds of injustices like that, there are a lot of people who just don’t feel as safe or just don’t feel as comfortable. And when that happens, they aren’t able to be vulnerable and open. And then the kind of growth we’re aiming for doesn’t happen. So, even if the men who would want to come are well intentioned and they just want to learn, they just want to practice allyship—I think that those are great things for them to do, but that’s just not what our space is for—
SWB —because that gets in the way of the thing we are trying to do. And I’m really okay with that and I’m willing [laughs] to defend that choice.
KL Yeah, me too. And I feel like I wrestle with this sometimes. I don’t want “exclusion” to be the outcome of anything we do, but I also really want folks identifying as men to do the work of paying attention to this and to understand the nuances of showing up and taking up space in places that don’t center them. We are all doing that work all the time.
SWB Yeah. That is a conversation I have been having recently—how often I think about a space and whether that space is welcoming to me or safe for me. I get cues all the time that a space is “not for me” and I think that white cis men get very, very little of that message. They don’t get the message that often that things aren’t for them, and it might be kind of weird to get that message very clearly and directly: not for you. But [laughs] everything is already for them! I am okay with saying this one thing, this tiny thing, this one tiny fucking thing we’re doing? [both laugh] It’s not yours! Go back to enjoying owning literally everything else, and just let us have this.
KL Truly. Yeah, I’m really glad this conversation happened because I do want to hear people’s questions or concerns about what we’re building, and I’m glad that folks felt comfortable opening up this dialog with us. These are the conversations we want to have, especially in an environment where folks seem open and willing to listen.
SWB Right. We had made an intentional choice here to have our community be structured in a certain way, but we could have easily made an unintentional choice that was excluding people. And if that happens, I want to hear about that too, so I definitely want to be able to have these conversations with folks.
KL And it was good for us to talk about why we are doing things the way we’re doing them. I do think what this conversation also brought up is how do we communicate who our events are for and why, and that we’re looking at what we’re doing to make sure we don’t alienate or exclude women and non-binary folks who aren’t traditionally femme. So, something that came up specifically was what if someone who is gender non-conforming or who is a trans woman who might be perceived as masculine reads the description and is worried that they won’t quote unquote “pass” and they’ll be kicked out?
SWB Right, so there is a question in there around how do we avoid that happening because that’s awful and that’s not what we want to do, while also letting men who try to join the group without reading—which certainly happens—let them know this isn’t for them? It’s a free event on Meetup, so you can’t necessarily tell based on someone’s avatar and their name how they identify.
KL Mhmm. SWB And I don’t want to be the arbiter of gender here emailing people I decide are men.
SWB That’s not where I want to be. But I also want to make sure I do clarify with those folks who have made an honest mistake because the event sounded interesting and they weren’t paying that much attention, which I think happens.
SWB So, I think this is something that we have to work out better as we grow and figure out how to adjust some settings to do the best job we can making sure people really do know what we’re up to and then trusting that the right people are going to show up and the right people are going to recognize this isn’t for them!
KL Yeah, totally. And hearing Naj talk about Ethels Club reminded me that community is work. You can have great intentions and still get it wrong and even still do harm. There’s a constant process of evaluating what’s happening, and we’ve got to be in for that. And I know you and I are eager to do it, but it’ll also take a lot of time and energy.
KL So, [laughs] I love how Naj has decided to turn her community idea into a proper business, so she can invest all her time and brain into it.
SWB Are you saying that’s what we should do?
KL I mean… dot dot dot.
SWB Let’s quit everything. [both laugh] Okay, rich benefactors, hit us up.
KL Yeah, please. [short transition music plays]
Interview: Naj Austin
SWB Naj, we are so excited to hear about what led you to found Ethels and everything that you’re planning with that business. Welcome to Strong Feelings!
Naj Austin Hello, thank you for having me!
SWB So, first up, can you start out by telling our listeners a little bit more about Ethels? What is it, what’s it for, who do you hope goes there?
NA So, Ethel’s Club is a private membership club and workspace designed with people of color in mind. And what that means is that everything that we’re doing—inside of the space, the interior design, the programming—is very intentionally chosen to uplift, celebrate, and see people of color.
SWB One of the things I really wanted to ask about is the overall landscape for private clubs right now and why it matters that there’s something like this specifically focused on people of color. Because I think there’s been kind of an uptick in private clubs and social spaces, right?
NA I think that the interesting shift that’s occurred has mainly just been the fact that people are looking for spaces where they can feel seen, celebrated, and find like-minded people in real life versus on the internet. There are so many microcosms and worlds on the internet where you can find people who believe in the same things that you do, very similar to reddit and the subreddits that exist there. I think we’re just seeing people who are looking for something that they’re not finding on the internet, which I think you get a very different experience in real life. Combine that with experience from marketing, very good branding, amazing interior design, really solid slick programming, and it becomes a very different entity that I think people are looking for.
KL So, at the top of the show where we mention that it’s not necessarily like every other coworking space, but more of a place where people are potentially coming after work and around work and as part of a community—what led to that choice?
NA So, it’s very funny. I can’t stand the word co-working [KL laughs] because I don’t know what it means. I’m like, “isn’t coworking just wifi, a table, and a chair?” In which case, we definitely will have that, we’ll have all three of those things. But I think what I saw was missing in the market was programming, honestly. I couldn’t find content that I wanted to be around. When you go to We Work, you don’t go there because you’re looking for an amazing panel about motherhood, you go there because you need a desk. And I found that it was very difficult to find a place that centered all the things that I was looking for, so when I started putting together what Ethels Club looked like way back in January, that was a huge component for me. And it started becoming such an important part about how I spoke about the company that I think when we started marketing to people, that’s what they responded to. They were like, “you know what, I actually also have been looking for a space that has really interesting programming and art exhibits that center black and brown artists, a place that centers the culinary world, a place that centers the podcast world.” So, we’ve taken that and really tried to position ourselves as a cultural anchor that offers that to our members.
KL I love that. What does the space actually look like?
NA It was very funny. When I hired our branding firm, I think they thought it was crazy when I was describing it. I was like, “it needs to feel homey, but cool. Like the coolest house that you meant to own, but never got around to, but also feels timeless,” and they were like, “what?” [KL laughs] But because they’re geniuses, they actually made that come to life, which is pretty exciting. So, it feels very comfortable. We are definitely leaning more towards contemporary, more artistic. We are definitely trying to center creatives and making sure that they feel like this space was also designed with them in mind. So, there are different sort of areas within the space—some that are cozy couches, some workspaces, there’s a podcast room, there’s a wellness room. One of the important parts of our programming centers mental health and therapy, so we’re having different therapists of color come by to our space for consultations with our members, which was important to me, but also very important to a lot of the people that had signed up on our waitlist. Then there will also be sort of a quiet room to kind of take a break from the outside space, and a cafe and bar.
KL I love the sound of that. I had read that you’re talking about planning some programming around wellness and I think that’s so important. And talking about programming—what does that look like potentially in the future and in general? What kind of topics or themes are you expecting to plan events around?
NA One of the things I saw was that there wasn’t an overarching brand that did most of what we’re doing. So, we have a little bit of pressure on us to really deliver this stellar product, which I believe we will. But in regard to the programming, it’s kind of running the gamut between art, music, wellness—we’re depending a little bit on our members to tell us what they’re looking for. We have a pretty good gauge but a lot of this is a conversation. What we don’t want to do is just sort of say, “here’s the product, this is what we thought you wanted, do you like it?” Versus “this is a product. If you don’t like it, let’s talk about it and figure out how to give you the content that you’re looking for.” Because, again, an issue I found with other spaces was that they came up with a schedule and that was sort of it. And I would have preferred that there was a way to have a conversation around—let’s say for mental health awareness month, having content around that month that leans heavily on that. Even though we’re doing it all the time, I think it’s important. And there might be things that we miss! And I want to have that kind of conduit where members know that they can come to us and say, “hey, you guys totally missed Asian Pacific Awareness Month. Next time can you not?” Or “this is what you should do for it instead.” And just trying to be very thoughtful about everything that we’re doing regarding programming.
SWB I am so interested in these programming aspects because I feel like you’re really hitting at so many things that are undercovered. I know you mentioned bringing in therapists of color and I know that women of color have told me how hard it is to find therapists who understand where they’re coming from. So, I love this way of finding these unmet needs and then getting feedback from people like this is something that’s surfaced from the people who are interested in Ethels. So, I think that’s so awesome.
NA A lot of the programming are problems that I had personally in my life. I could not find a therapist of color and there’s no way to skew for that on ZocDoc, so I had to kind of know and then you have to now talk to people you’re not super comfortable with to say, “hey, do you see a therapist by any chance? [laughs] Is she a woman of color?” It makes it this very weird, difficult thing that you have to figure out. So, I thought it would be interesting to one— destigmatize this thing of mental health and not make it this thing where you have to kind of show up in a cloak and glasses and go. It’s just a part of your life! It should be. We should talk about it all the time, your therapist should be sitting over there, you should not be afraid to say that you are seeing one, that you are seeking someone to talk to. We don’t want to push it down people’s throats, which is why we are offering it just on consultation like services. We’re not saying, “go and see the therapist around the corner.” But I do think it was a really clear unmet need that we’re really excited to solve for.
SWB It’s so great. I mean, we love talking about therapy. [KL & NA laugh] We had Katel’s therapist on the show and it was pretty good. [all laugh]
NA I also love therapists and that’s been very fun for me because I get to talk to them and be like, “do you want to come to Ethels Club? [KL laughs] Can you tell me more about yourself?” It’s been awesome.
KL I am so excited for everyone who is going to end up going there. And your first space is actually opening in Brooklyn in the fall in just a few months. I read that you have a waitlist several thousand deep. How are you feeling?
NA Very overwhelmed. The number is around 4,000 now. And we’ve done that with zero marketing, so I’m still kind of confused a little bit as to how they’ve all found us. But it has been pressure inducing in a really good way. When you launch a company, the first thing you think is, “literally nobody wants this except for me,” and you kind of have to be okay with that that might be the outcome. If you’re building a product, you’re most likely building a little bit outside of your head, which as I mentioned, I definitely was doing when we first started putting this together. The first week that we had the website up, we had 600 people sign up on the waitlist. I was like, “holy shit, [laughs] where did these people come from?” I’m texting my family like, [laughing] “guys, I think I made a mistake, I have a company now!” So, I haven’t really had time to sit with it because I’m just so deep inside actually creating it.
SWB Well, I’m very excited for you because I think you’ve clearly struck on something that people needed, that they’re telling each other about it, so that’s great. And it makes me want to ask a little bit more about how you go to this place. So, can you tell us a little bit more of your story? What were you doing before deciding to found Ethels and how did that lead you into building out this concept?
NA So, I’ve been in the startup and tech world for the past five years. The companies have always centered real estate, hospitality—building spaces for people that make them excited to be there. The very first company, which is no longer around, was a company that was looking to become a hotel version of airbnb. So, how do we create a better airbnb basically? So, that’s better furniture, there aren’t people’s weird items in the bathroom, and making this sort of sticky product. I was Head of Operations at that company and my job was to build the product, sell the product, and keep finding more product, which were these apartments. We had about forty apartments between New York, Boston, and Philly. And I think I sort of caught this hospitality bug of wanting to build these beautiful spaces where people came in and were like, “oh my gosh, I think you built this for me,” and I’m kind, “of course we did, it’s totally for you.” And that was really exciting! A lot of what I learned from that company I’ve 100% used in terms of building Ethels Club. And also being at an early stage startup, you learn a lot of tools that aren’t as obvious at the time, but a lot of ways to cope, a lot of ways to build. Putting together a website took me about thirty minutes because I’d already done it so many times before, understanding what a waitlist means and how to leverage that—all of those things came from that. So, I’ve used almost everything that came from that in regards to the small and large moving pieces of Ethels Club.
SWB So, your background and experience sounds hyper-relevant and super useful, but is there anything that you weren’t prepared for? [laughs]
NA Everything else! The day-to-day of actually being a CEO and having to make a decision every day I was not used to. As Head of Operations at the previous company, I definitely made a lot of decisions for sure. But every day I have to make a decision that today is critical—or at least in my head critical—in terms of the positioning of the company. So, let’s say who we allow into the space in regards to brands. At one point, we were talking to a company I will not name that has kind of entangled themselves in a host of not great things, but if we had—and when I go to bed, I’m like, “well, if we had signed that partnership agreement, we would have gone down the drain with them.” So, those kinds of decisions that feel like they’re make or break. I think ultimately they’re most likely not, but it’s still really hard to be in a position where every person you hire, the paint color of the space, the therapists we bring in seems very critical, which….I have a little bit more anxiety than I had starting out.
SWB Gosh, yeah. It sounds tough when you’re in that space where everything feels a little bit risky because you’re so early on. So, it’s sort of like, “is it going to work, is it going to work?’ So, everything probably feels heightened.
NA Very heightened. You have your investors who are all looking for different things to be done, and then you have your staff who you want to make happy and healthy, and then you have your customers who are looking for this amazing product. You also have yourself, which I often forget about. And trying to make sure that everything is going up.
KL You’re talking a lot about what you were seeing and places where you felt like there was a gap. Was there a moment that you thought, “now is the time for a space like this?”
NA The basic trends I saw were the trend of future of work, which a lot of people are looking to solve for. I saw a resurgence of this need for identity and figuring out who you are. I saw a shift back towards what we spoke about earlier, which was this idea of needing to detoxify yourself from the internet and finding these spaces that are safe spaces away from that. And when looking at all of those trends, I didn’t see anything that I fell into. I’m a millennial-aged black woman living in New York City; I think I should fall into most categories, but I don’t. And when I started talking about it with peers and friends, it started becoming really obvious. People were like, “yeah, but no one’s made it, so whatever, we’ll just go here instead.” And I was just like, “well, why do we always have to do the default thing? Why isn’t there a product that was built with us in mind?” And then I went into super Naj mode where I start googling a lot and I couldn’t find a company or even a space that centered what it meant to be a person of color today. And I started doing more research, started putting together a business model and all those moving parts, and it kind of just naturally organically was built. I also started doing a lot of customer discovery with that list of 600 people. I was like, “hi, my name is Naj, you signed up on my website…what are you looking for exactly?” And the overarching aspect was they wanted a place that centered them, whether it was through art, music, wellness, food, quiet—it just doesn’t exist today.
KL Was it scary to make the jump from working in your career previous to this to founding Ethels? What was that like?
NA It… wasn’t? And I’m always hesitant about saying that it was not because I definitely was not in a position to quit my comfortable job to start a startup with zero funding or really even a business model. But I think that building this has been easier because at the end of the day, I’m building for myself, so it makes it a little bit more intuitive. I’m like, “what would I want to see out of this space?” and from those kinds of thoughts I think we’ve built something that a lot of people who are very similar to me will respond to. So, I think that I wasn’t scared when I left my job, I was just so deep already in Ethels Club emotionally that it just seemed like the right thing to do, and to not do it would be a disservice to myself. And then the day I quit, I 100% the next day hired a lawyer and was like, “I need an EIN number, can you help me?” [laughs] It’s been fast-moving since then.
SWB Speaking of some of the business side of things and sort of the funding side of things, I’d love to talk about that. You said that when you started, you didn’t have any funding, but I know that that’s no longer true. I know you had a crowdfunding campaign back in the spring on iFundwomen that was successful, and I’m really curious about sort of the financial aspects. So, some money came from crowdfunding, some is coming from more of a bootstrapping kind of approach, but how do you see your overall business model shaping up?
NA We did run the crowdfunding campaign, which was very important to me. I wanted to make sure this product was or always will be seen as a product of the people. I wanted to make sure that all of the people who have been incredibly supportive in our early days felt like they could actually help make this a reality. So, we did run that $25,000 crowdfunding campaign and that was awesome. Again, incredibly supported—we had about 264 backers, most of them who I did not know, and some I still don’t know very well, which is just… It helps keep us going on days when we’re like, “wait, why are we doing this again?” to know that there are people out there who are rooting for our success. We did at the same time of the crowdfunding campaign begin to start our equity pre-seed round, which I also wanted to raise from the right people. It’s very hard when you look at the landscape of venture, most people are heterosexual white men and that is so far from our target market that raising money from people who identify as that didn’t seem authentic to what we were looking to build. So, we had a very lofty goal of trying to raise mostly from people of color and, honestly, anyone who is just from an underrepresented group across the board. And it’s been very exciting because we’ve had a lot of amazing success with that and we’re actually very close to closing our round right now, which is really exciting. And then we have this amazing cap table of people who are—I literally could have dreamed them. They are so amazing for our cause and helpful in terms of all of the different things that we are looking to solve with the company on a mission level as well.
SWB So, I’m super fascinated by this because I think so often when people are going out to get funding it’s literally just about the dollars and I like the way that you’re thinking about this in such a nuanced way. And speaking of amazing people who have invested, we’ve got to talk about Roxanne Gay. [laughing] So, I know that Roxane Gay invested in the club, and I’m very curious—how did that feel to have her not only want to invest, but also lend her voice and personal brand to what you’re doing?
NA I mean, it still feels unreal. I’m still like, “Roxane, are you still around? Do you still care?” It’s very strange. Mainly because she was a personal hero of mine for so long, and so to have her come on as someone who is deeply involved in this product I’m building and my professional life is…it’s weird. I mean, it was either her or Beyonce. [SWB laughs] I’m still waiting for Beyonce to call me back, but this is an amazing start! Honestly, those are my two heroes and so it feels unreal!
SWB She’s wonderful for a lot of reasons, but one of the things that I’ve always appreciated about Roxane Gay and the way that she communicates and what she does is she’s so prepared to bring people up with her, and help people get into the spotlight, and help people get the things they want. So, I’m so happy that she heard about you because…what a match! So, I’ve seen folks comparing what you’re doing to something like The Wing, right? Which is not exactly the same; they do a lot more traditional coworking, but they’re also trying to do that programming-focused community for women. And they have received a huge influx of investor capital—they have a lot of money coming in even from something like WeWork. And I saw that their last round was $75 million, they’ve been going through this massive expansion, and I’m curious—do you see Ethels trying to go down that larger-scale path quickly? Is that a model that you’re looking at? Where’s your head on that right now?
NA Right now, I’m centered around the intentional aspects of the company. I do think that there are ways to grow quick and I admire so much of what The Wing has done in terms of paving a path for us. I think that it’s much easier—I don’t have to describe what a social club is because people already know what it is, which is half the battle sometimes. I do think that. I think it could be just as lucrative, it’s just a little bit harder to find the right people. If you look up top venture firms, they have a lot of those firms who are currently invested in their company. Most of those firms do not fit our criteria for who we want to be involved, so already we’re starting on page three of Google. Which is fine! I’ve always said since day one if I’m going to die on a hill, I would prefer it to be an ethical one grounded in my beliefs. Which is that I think to make this an amazing company that is huge, it needs to have that kind of ethos from day one. Let me tell you, I’ve turned people down and there are days where I’m like, “why did I do that? [laughs] All my problems would be gone right now. But I believe sincerely that on the other side of that, I’m allowed to have these amazing partners who I feel like are invested beyond capital. And that was super important to me. I do not think I’d be able to build the company I need if I don’t have that buy-in as well. So, I see their business model, I appreciate it, I think we will be similar but different.
SWB Yeah. You know, as you’re talking about that, it just strikes me as powerful it is to say, well, if this is going to be a community that is for people of color that centers people of color, then being beholden to a bunch of organizations that are not people of color oriented—like who do you serve? Do you end up recreating whatever white culture deems acceptable in order to make them happy and then what happens?”
NA Yeah. When looking at companies and the way that they’re structured, people often forget how pivotal of a role investors can play. Yes, they definitely bring capital to the table and you have some investors and some firms that write the check and they kind of disappear. But you also have a lot that want to be involved, and that was a huge concern of mine of trying to leverage their expectations for a path that they have never once walked. It’s very funny—in a lot of the investor meetings most of the time I don’t spend pitching, I spend talking about systemic racism. And I had so many of those meetings and I was like, “why am I taking these meetings? If they’re in 2018 just understanding the implications of a centuries-long issue, maybe they’re not the right partner for us right now.” So, I shifted who I was talking to and it has been much, much better on my psyche, but also again in terms of who we’re bringing onto the team.
SWB [laughing] Yeah, not doing racism 101 training. [KL laughs]
KL Yeah. I want to hear a little bit more about the partnership angle. What are your hopes for partnership opportunities with Ethels?
NA Again, it’s hard because we’re looking to find corporate partners that are not looking to just tap into the cool person of color thing. And it’s really hard to gauge who those people are. We’re seeing this huge influx around diversity and inclusion and making sure that people are doing the right thing. But for me, it’s much more important that it’s something that they believe in. And it just requires a lot more conversations before we get anywhere near signing a term sheet or any sort of agreement. Which, again, it is not the most exciting road, right? I’m sure I could easily call Target, and have them interested, and that could be something really lucrative and interesting in its own way, but I don’t necessarily think that—and not to shame Target, I think they’re a great company—but I don’t think they’re necessarily the right company that should be partnering with someone who is centering people of color. I think there are specific ones we have in mind. They might not have the same amount of dollars as a larger corporation does, but I’m willing to take less on that side to kind of stick to our message, which…[sighs] it’s the road we’re traveling and it’s definitely less traveled for that reason because it is not as easy. But it’s made for really interesting conversations. I’ve had talks with larger corporations and I’ve explained to them all of the things [laughs] they’re doing wrong around diversity and inclusion. Like you can’t just post a person of color during Black History Month and then literally never again. So, [laughing] why don’t you guys start there and then we can have another conversation when maybe you think about this in a deeper manner? [SWB laughs] And that does not—I’m sure they could have just given us money, but there’s something about using black and brown culture as a way to leverage dollars in an inauthentic way that bothers me. And a lot of brands do it. I’m not sure how familiar you guys are with Black Twitter, but right now there is a very popular black female rapper named Hot Girl Meg or Meg thee Stallion. And there have been all of these brands who are taking “hot girl summer” and they’re putting it all over their marketing content. They put “hot girl summer” and then you scroll down and there’s four blond women and you’re like, “okay…” I mean, it’s fine, but it’s not great. And there is this sort of idea of culture-vulturing and I’m aware of all of these things, obviously, since I identify as a black woman, and I’m just trying to be really conscious about it. We have a team that we all identify in a variety of ways that fall under the POC spectrum and we have these conversations all the time of “is this the right brand?” And it’s hard. [laughs] It’s really hard. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have such a moral compass and I was just like, “you know what? Whatever!” [laughs] Because it would be easier for sure.
SWB It might be easier to get those partnerships, but then I think back to your mission of saying “we are going to be really serving this community” and at some point, are you selling out your own community—
SWB —which is obviously what you want to not do. I mean, I just think of—I learn so much from Black Twitter, I appreciate so much about my access to Black Twitter, and then I see that kind of shit happening and I’m like, “okay, brands, thanks for your co-option of hot girl summer, thanks for your rainbow pride month avatar, but what are you actually really doing?”
NA Exactly. And if we could be a conduit to help these brands actually figure out what they are doing—because I think a lot of it is they’re spinning their wheels just as much as we think they are. They’re like, “oh gosh, we’ve got to do the hip thing, okay, how do we do it, okay just go on Black Twitter, just use it, it’s fine.” I would like to have them—look, I don’t know what the right solve for this is, but the first answer is to get more black and brown people in the room. So, them hiring better in that way would be probably the easiest, fastest answer for better results. But I do think if they wanted to partner with us, we’d say, “okay, you can’t use the words hot girl summer and we’re going to tell you why” and sort of help them help themselves a little bit. That’s not something we’re focused on now because I do think that there’s a huge D&I lift there, but it is something I have thought about a lot because I’m kind of doing it already.
SWB You mean you don’t want to teach companies about diversity and inclusion [NA laughs] right after you teach investors about racism 101? [KL laughs]
NA Or you know what? Maybe we can really shift the business model and that could be what I do. [all laugh] But it’s funny because I have a lot of people say they are shocked when I tell them we’re looking to hire someone who is experienced in diversity and inclusion. And I’m like, “wait, do you guys realize that just because we’re people of color, [laughs] we don’t know how to make spaces inherently inclusive and diverse, we also need an expert. These people are professionals.” And there is this expectation of, “oh well you guys have dealt with this stuff, don’t you know how to do it?” It’s just mind-boggling. But working towards the right goal, right?
SWB It reminds me of so many companies who think they can fix systemic bias problems by having two 23-year-old black women that they hired.
SWB I’m like, “mhmm… [NA laughs] there’s a few issues with that, I just don’t think that’s going to work.”
KL Oh my gosh. So, this is a selfish question and [laughs] you can answer it or not. Do you have any dream partners that you’re thinking about?
NA I don’t think so? And honestly, my ideal scenario is that we have a lot of capital given to us by underrepresented investors and we’re able to actually support and uplift brands that you don’t know about yet.
NA And that’s always been our mission of trying to have this really good mix so that we can afford to be there, but make space for the people who are not going to be able to sell their items in Whole Foods because of a number of reasons. And trying to be a real resource for underrepresented artists—a space that is uplifting the voices that can’t even get inside the door. Those are my dream companies. It’s just one— kind of hard to find them and two—again, this is a business, so trying to leverage both is hard. But it’s a grind that I signed myself up for and I feel like I’m the right person to do it, so we’re doing it.
SWB It definitely seems like you’re the right person to do it. [laughs] And we’re starting to run out of time, so I actually would like to ask you a little bit—since you do seem like the right person here—I would love to ask you for some advice or some insights. Because I think that so often when people have business ideas that are targeted at an audience that’s been underserved, they get discounted. They get told that there’s not really a market there, it’s too niche, this isn’t something that people are going to want because it’s not something that white guy investors understand. And I think actually what you’re really getting to here is there is this pent up demand, right? There was this pent up demand for something like Ethels as you saw as soon as you launched it. So, I’m curious, what would you tell someone who is entrepreneurial and interested in building for an underserved or marginalized group like you are? How can they break through that biased mindset they might encounter or at least not let it stop them?
NA Well, I’ve only figured out about 13% of this question, so I don’t want to give too much of my advice. But I do think that most of it is just kind of keeping at it and also reshifting your mindset. When I went from “I’m just going to pitch to investors” to “I’m going to pitch to investors I think will make this company huge in the way that I’d like to,” it became a very different conversation. So, I’d say one—be really clear about who you’re looking to bring onto the team. The other thing I think is important is finding like-minded people going through sort of a similar thing. I recently went to a black, female founder dinner and it was two hours, two and a half hours and it was its own version of necessary therapy for me because we are dealing with such specific problems as black female founders. It was just great to have sort of a safe space and a room to unleash a lot of our concerns or fears, what we’ve learned, and just our grievances generally. So, I think having that support system is great because it gets really, really hard and you kind of need people who deeply understand what you’re going through to kind of help you through it and hopefully out of it. So, I think kind of focusing on those two things will most likely lead you to the right direction. Also, just the venture world is just difficult being anybody. Obviously, there’s a scale of how difficult it is, but there is a lot of no’s before there are yes’s for most people. So, I think just understanding that and continually trying to open doors for yourself. Because if you don’t have them, there aren’t maybe people out there who can help you. Which, again, goes back to the supportive group because in that room, we were all able to help one another. Oh, you need an intro here? I can help you. Oh, you need an email? I have you. Because we’re all looking to validate one another.
KL Naj, thank you so much for being here with us today. Where can our listeners follow all the news about Ethels opening?
NA So, they can follow the news on our social media, which is @ethelsclub. They can also sign up for the waitlist on our website, which is www.ethelsclub.com.
SWB Naj, thank you again so much. This was so wonderful!
NA Awesome, thank you for having me. [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
SWB Okay, Katel, we’re almost out of time, so we need a fuck yeah.
KL Umm…can we do a big fuck yeah to beach bods?
SWB Yes we can! Okay, so me and Katel were just at the Jersey shore—love the Jersey shore—
SWB I actually seriously do.
KL I know, it’s great.
SWB —for a friends getaway! The weather was perfect and there were so many people out on the beach with their beach bods looking great.
KL So many, and so many women of all sizes and ages and looks. I think my fave was this woman with a super cute floral Brazilian bikini—almost practically a thong—in a plus size. It was so good.
SWB She was so cute! She looked perfect in it and she gave me a lot of strength [KL laughs] because I really wanted to be able to hang out all comfortable in my body in my swimsuit eating my Doritos on the beach. And I did! And I felt good! And I wasn’t obsessing [laughs] all day obsessing over how I looked and whether it was ok for me to wear that or whatever. I was just out there in my bikini—not a thong. I feel like that’s a very big trend right now [KL laughs]—
KL [laughing] It is!
SWB —that I’m personally not going to partake in on the beach. But you do you, live your dreams.
SWB But I did feel like I was out just existing and living and that is something [laughs] I have always wanted for myself. And I don’t think I’ve got it all figured out, [laughs] I’m still ups and downs with my body, but I feel like I’m kind of finally starting to get there. And just enjoying it!
KL I love that! And I would personally like to live in my bikini and beach mumu all summer if possible. I would love to just go back and forth between the beach and doing puzzles, and beach and puzzles everyday.
SWB Oh my gosh, we did a lot of puzzles. [laughs]
SWB Okay, but next year, do not, do not let me go out there with bare legs [KL laughs] saying that I’m going to get “a little bit of color” before I put sunscreen on okay? Because you saw what happened.
KL I did. Okay, I’m going to come mist you regularly with spray sunscreen while you read. I promise.
SWB Okay, so fuck yeah to beach bods that are also SPF 50 and up. [laughs]
SWB Well, that’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” from Blowdryer, an awesome Philly-based band that we just love. Check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Naj Austin for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you like the show, please tell a friend or two! And make sure that you subscribe wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts so you don’t miss a thing. And hey—if you want some strong feelings in your inbox, you can get our newsletter. Go to strongfeelings.co to sign up. See you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]