Alex Steinman and her co-founders, Bethany, Erinn and Liz, met in advertising. They were all working under inclusion initiatives, in the Twin Cities, to bring 25 agency leaders together to promote conversations about bringing more diverse talent into leadership—but that requires time and money. “The industry wasn’t into that,” Steinman says. Steinman and her co-founders instead looked to invest in creating an accessible space to make the biggest impact across multiple industries—servicing women so they could help be part of the fabric of building economically empowered businesses in their community. “So we came up with the idea of a space where we could hold that energy—when women come into a space we could foster and incubate companies to create more access for women,” Steinman says.
Unlike many coworking owners, these founders came into the project with impressive previous careers in marketing, advertising and PR. About a year ago, they started with focus groups for market research and interviewed hundreds of women from every industry about how they would use the space. “We didn’t want to tell people what they needed, so this market research gave us a better sense of what the community needed,” Steinman says. They decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign in October and raised $315,000 in about five months on iFundWomen, a crowdfunding platform for women-led startups and small businesses.
“We started by planning,” Steinman says. “Which I think a lot of folks don’t think about when they jump into a crowdfunding platform. But if no one has a way to find it then you’re not going to raise any money.”
They invested a lot of money in connecting with people to share their story and built their email lists so that they had an arsenal of followers willing to purchase memberships from the beginning. They started two months in advance of the crowdfunding launch to build their social and email lists. “We were building a community to hit the purchase button from the day that we launched,” Steinman says. They have about 340 members now and over 60 community-funded members.
“A core piece of our business and messaging was that we wanted this thing to be built from the community, to help people through contributing more opportunities and access,” Steinman says. They had a unique situation. Minneapolis has one of the highest disparity gaps in the country and to be able to bridge that Steinman had more wealthy members contribute to the success of The Coven’s less wealthy members. They were giving away a lot for free up front and, from a business perspective, in order to go to a bank down the road or have an investor (which they haven’t needed yet), the women needed proof of concept.
“The success of the crowdfunding proved that the Twin Cities were ready for a space like this,” Steinman says. Their five-for-one program means they accept applications twice a year to gift one membership to someone in the community, either in the LGBTQ community or individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds—immigrants, people of color or differently abled women, for example. “We want a space that looks and feels like the Twin Cities,” Steinman says.
Scholarship members have found access to capital and have grown their businesses as a result of joining The Coven, “The next year many of them can pay for a membership and so it’s not just our full-paying members, but all our community members, that are growing the space long term,” Steinman said. “This isn’t a fad. It’s a growing and expanding community.”
Steinman believes that traditional workplaces have a lot to learn, “In general, we’re going through a reckoning with #MeToo and the Time’s Up movement, but I think we’re primed in the time where women and non-binary women are saying that women deserve equality—but in systems that were built on oppression and built for men and by men,” Steinman says. “It’s a much harder boat to turn.”
For Steinman and her co-founders, creating a space that is women and non-binary focused first is the biggest difference between The Coven and other coworking spaces. “It’s about creating more than just a space for women to nurse. It’s creating a space that doesn’t discriminate against those things,” Steinman says. She points out that parental leave and nursing rooms tend to be things just being invested in now, without thinking about what else parents need when returning to work. Maybe it’s bringing the baby to work in the first 6 months to bond, “It’s things like this that we’re investing in first and putting them first so we make sure women are comfortable,” Steinman says.
“Staying true to your values and finding partners who value your mission,” are among the most important, she says. Steinman and her co-founder were intentional about their location to enable the most access by every type of community member, The Coven is situated next to public trans, bike routes, and parking to ensure the most accessibility. They also strive to provide free snacks and meal bridging so that members can focus on working and it’s an equitable space for all.
Steinman would recommend a platform like iFundWomen because it offers an incredible community and support. “One of the things they do best is coach you through the process,” Steinman says.
“It takes time, prep and persistence and so it’s a great platform if you’ve never done crowdfunding before but what I would definitely say is you have to have your shit together,” she says.
Crowdfunding is not something that you can just put in motion and let go of, “You really have to do the prep work and leg work and do it when you have time, set a realistic goal you know you can hit and don’t be afraid to be annoying,” she says.
“You have to promote yourself, no one else is going to promote you.”
It’s like she tells her members: “Putting yourself out into the world, that's how you’re going to reach your goal. Maybe it's $10,000 to get an initial investment, not to buy a space but just to buy food and post your focus group,” she says. “What we did wasn’t easy but we hit the mark at the right time and in the right place.”