A little over a year ago, The Wing lured in millennial professional women with chic coworking spaces featuring onsite blowouts and empowerment-infused messaging. The exclusive membership included the likes of Glossier founder Emily Weiss and style icon Tavi Gevinson. Now the club is expanding to build its next phase: a media brand.
The Wing announced its first podcast, No Man’s Land, today. The series centers on historic women, specifically “rule breakers and names that may not have made headlines,” says cofounder Audrey Gelman. It’s described as a more feminist take on “Stuff I Missed in History Class,” with subjects spanning a 1920s Harlem “gangstress” to Gold Rush Era “lady pickpockets.” Produced by Pineapple Street Media (whose founder Jenna Weiss Berman is a Wing member), the six-episode series will launch this fall with host Alexis Coe, The Wing’s in-house historian.
“History podcasts are one of my favorite genre podcasts and there isn’t a women’s-focused offering out there [like this],” says Gelman, noting The Wing’s place in women’s history. Female-only clubs boast a strong legacy: At one point in the 1930s, there were over 600 such groups in New York City and 5,000 nationwide.
The news coincides with the second issue of The Wing’s biannual magazine, also dubbed No Man’s Land. Comedian Jessica Williams graces the cover, while contents include a mishmash of both news-oriented and lifestyle features.
Interview subjects include Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (conducted by Gelman), activist Chelsea Manning, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, and Women & Power author Mary Beard (dubbed “the troll slayer”). There’s also a look into the historic rise of women-only gyms, recipes from chef Alison Roman, and, in a nod to nostalgic interests, an entire sticker page.
“Women want content that speaks to them as a peer, and takes them seriously,” says Gelman. No Man’s Land partnered with New York magazine’s The Cut, which Gelman views as an intellectual equal in terms of female-focused content. The site will share select features the launch week of June 4. Distribution partners include Barnes & Noble.
The perils of popularity
The media expansion serves as a brand unifier in many ways, reaching audiences that otherwise can’t access club locations. The Wing currently has three locations in New York and D.C., with six more on the way (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Brooklyn, London, and Toronto). In November, coworking behemoth WeWork announced a $32 million round of funding for the popular women’s-only coworking collective.
“We did something that was sort of counterintuitive: We went physical first as a brand,” says Gelman, noting the challenges of fundraising for a physical concept. Add in the women-focused angle and it’s even tougher; Gelman battled a perception that The Wing was a “novel idea” that couldn’t compete at venture scale.
“A lot of female founders are told that,” says Gelman, “because [investors] think that the addressable market isn’t big enough . . . or they underestimate the power of the female consumer.”
She points to the fact that the percentage of women CEOs at Fortune 500 companies declined in the last year. Only 2% of venture capital funding went toward female founders last year. That’s precisely the type of data that fuels her passion for The Wing: “It just reaffirmed why we believe in what we’re doing and why we think it’s important.”
But amid its glowing reputation and rapid growth, The Wing has also been subject to criticism and a cub’s share of scandals. Lena Dunham did or didn’t poke fun of it on HBO’s Girls; the New York City Commission on Human Rights opened an investigation rumored to be linked to the city’s gender discrimination laws (a casual examination that both sides concede was overblown by the media); more recently, The Wing announced Nike as a lead sponsor for the camping retreat, just one month after the New York Times exposed the company’s toxic workplace culture for women.
Gelman has been quick to address such controversies. Replying to inquiries as to whether Nike would continue to serve as a brand partner, she says The Wing supports the women within the company pushing to have their voices heard.
“For us, there’s nothing controversial about partnering with Nike Women, the executives behind the effort to make Nike a more inclusive corporate environment,” says Gelman.
But for all of The Wing’s talk of inclusivity and providing shelter for all women, there are concerns as to who exactly benefits from their offerings. Some critics take aim at the hefty price tag–$215 a month–and “elitist” tendencies, which they believe mostly cater to affluent circles. (A recent scholarship program offers free membership to 100 women in fields currently underrepresented, like retail workers.) One Facebook reviewer complained that, she believed, there was little room for less sexy female entrepreneurs: owners of hair studios, auto body shops, or nail salons.
Gelman dismisses such criticisms and encourages incoming members to give it a shot before knocking it. “It’s important to experience the space and see the eclecticism and the diversity of our members,” she says, noting the clubs’ ongoing welcoming efforts.”We want women to come as they are.”
“Go long on women”
The Wing illuminated women’s desire to connect with like-minded communities. Total membership now hovers in the thousands, with the average age being 34 (although ages range from 21 to 79). The company’s success leads Gelman to categorize herself with a number of female founders catering to a gender long ignored in Silicon Valley, like Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe.
“There are just so many incredible women who are starting businesses and breaking records,” stresses Gelman. “If I were an investor, I would go long on women.”
With investors now playing catch-up, Gelman intends to open branches across the U.S. and internationally, and also “reach more women who are outside the four walls.” The media expansion serves to amplify the clubs’ weekly programming, which often host politicians, authors, and community leaders.
Not that it’s abandoning its commitment to physical interaction: This summer, The Wing takes their lineup to the outdoors. From August 17-19, Camp No Man’s Land will re-create the bonding experience of the club, albeit set in an upstate New York campground. Roughly 500 Wing members will pay $375 to participate in a host of eclectic programming consistent with The Wing’s offerings– arts and crafts, music, politics, and current events–but also outdoor activities and marshmallow roasting. Camp, much like the coworking spaces, offers members a way to bond in real life.
“I think a lot of the reason why The Wing has such a strong emotional relationship with our members is because you get to access the kind of community you had when you were in college,” explains Gelman. “It reminds them of their college library, where they ran into people they weren’t planning to see.”
Consider it a much-needed alternative for an ambitious generation that no longer relies on religious institutions for community, yet doesn’t necessarily want to find it in corporate networking events. At the same time, Americans are lonelier than ever: over 70% report a sense of loneliness, while a third of women fear loneliness more than cancer.
Camp is one experiment from The Wing, which envisions a multitude of innovations in the coming years. How far they invest in one-off retreats or experiences remains remains to be evaluated, especially considering that the club’s calling card is that it is–unlike the multitude of female conferences–a permanent fixture. Weekend retreats end, but clubs remain open year-round.
“There’s something about the symbol of that permanence that’s really important,” she says, “because you can get very inspired at conferences, but then you can get distracted.”
The podcast, camp, and magazine are just the tip of the iceberg for what Gelman has in mind for The Wing’s ever-evolving identity and brand extensions.
“One of the great things that we get to do as a new company is try to innovate and experiment with new offerings for our members and get their feedback on what resonated with them the most,” says Gelman. “For us, it’s about doing what we said we were going to do.”