With an executive shakeup and new leadership, the Wing appears to be tentatively charting its comeback. The once-buzzy women’s club received a financial lifeline last month when IWG acquired a majority stake in the coworking startup, whose business was devastated both by the pandemic and a racial reckoning. Now, with the appointment of a key board member—and a new CEO (who replaces Audrey Gelman, the magnetic cofounder who was once synonymous with the brand)—the company is looking to the future.
Sheila Lirio Marcelo, the founder and former CEO of Care.com, has joined the Wing as executive chairwoman of its board of directors. Marcelo, who has been advising the Wing since the third quarter last year, will serve alongside new board members from IWG. (Gelman is no longer on the board.)
“Sheila has dedicated her career and life’s work to ensuring women have the resources they need to succeed and fulfill their dreams,” says Wing investor and Sequoia partner Jess Lee. “Not only does Sheila know what it’s like to lead and grow a successful company, she knows the unique challenges that come with being a woman—especially a woman of color—in the workplace.”
Lauren Kassan, the Wing’s other cofounder and longtime COO, has been formally named CEO. After Gelman resigned last year, Kassan had been elevated to what the company called the “Office of the CEO,” along with Ashley Peterson, SVP of operations, and Celestine Maddy, SVP of marketing, both of whom have since left the Wing.
Marcelo sees her new role as an extension of the work she did over her 13-year tenure at Care.com, an online marketplace that connects families with caregivers. When she started Care.com, Marcelo was driven in part by her own challenges as a working mother. With the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on working women, she says, it’s all the more important that they carve out space for themselves. “Care.com actually providing care for loved ones gives women space,” she says. “[The Wing] is a different type of space, but it has a lot of overlap for me.”
As a female founder herself—she also cofounded Landit, a career advancement platform for women and other diverse groups—Marcelo is invested in paying it forward and supporting other women entrepreneurs. “It’s just been sort of a drumbeat in my heart,” she says. “And as I started working with Lauren in Q3, I realized that I could probably help other female founders.” Working with Kassan, she says, prompted her to join the VC firm New Enterprise Associates as a venture partner.
Before the pandemic, the Wing had raised $118 million in funding from venture capitalists and celebrity investors like Mindy Kaling and Megan Rapinoe. In 2020, the plan had been to open nine more locations. But COVID-19 took a significant toll on the business, forcing the Wing to shutter all 11 of its locations and suspend membership dues. The company reportedly lost 95% of revenue overnight, and in April, most of the staff was laid off or furloughed.
Marcelo believes the business will bounce back as workers and companies alike seek out more flexible office arrangements post-pandemic. In a survey the Wing conducted with Change Research, 60% of more than 800 respondents said they will go to the office less frequently after the pandemic, while 68% said they would join an organization like the Wing if their employer footed the bill. When the Wing polled 870 of its current members in August, about 85% expressed interest in maintaining their membership in some form.
“People are looking for flexibility,” Marcelo says. “Corporations are thinking about not continuing on with their leases.” IWG, which operates workspaces in more than 110 countries, has already found that companies elsewhere are giving up their leases. (Mark Dixon, IWG’s CEO, just disclosed that the company signed up half a million new workers in the last month.)
The damage to the Wing’s brand, however, may be harder to cast off. The Wing has been dogged by criticism for years, first for its overt pop-feminist branding and steep price of admission, and more recently for not practicing the values splashed across its Instagram grid. In 2019, an incident at the Wing’s West Hollywood location, involving a Black member and the white guest of another member, led a number of Black members to cut ties with the Wing.
The employees who staffed Wing locations were overwhelmingly people of color, and in a New York Times report last year, some of them expressed being mistreated and paid poorly. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent protests, the Wing pledged to donate $200,000 to racial justice organizations, despite not having paid some employees what they were owed from a pandemic relief fund, according to the Times. When reached for comment, a Wing spokesperson said, “As with most retail businesses, The Wing had to close their locations and undergo lay-offs at the onset of COVID, but was committed to supporting its employees. In addition to severance provided, The Wing grant program was created to provide additional relief to employees and has been paid out in full.”
Employees who had been let go during the pandemic started sharing accounts of their time working at the Wing—which eventually led to Gelman’s exit. (Gelman wrote an op-ed in Fast Company acknowledging some of her missteps.) Soon after, some former staffers formed a group called Flew the Coup to anonymously share the experiences of ex-employees and put forth a number of demands to leadership. In October, months after stepping down, Gelman responded to Flew the Coup in a lengthy apology via Instagram. In a press release, Kassan said the Wing had “spent the past year listening and learning.” (Kassan was not made available for an interview.)
Marcelo insists that diversity, equity, and inclusion are now a priority for the Wing—both its employees and members—and that she hopes to leverage her experience at Care.com building and scaling a “mission-driven business.” She points to the Wing’s new “Culture Code,” which was introduced after Gelman’s departure and outlines the Wing’s purported values (“We do the work of anti-racism. We center diversity, equity, and inclusion in everything we do.”)—and commitments to providing reporting tools and mandatory training for members and employees.
“Part of my job is really ensuring that the proper set of governance is adhered to, and that we are following through on that Culture Code,” Marcelo says. “It’s super, super important, and I’m very committed to that.”
Editor’s Note: Bradley Tusk, an investor in the Wing, is a regular columnist for FastCompany.com.