From the file

Feminism Inc. | The Wing was the perfect haven for professional women – until it wasn’t. Here’s what happens when corporate feminism turns sour.

Fall of the Palace of Pinks

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Capitalism and feminism. Insta-aspiration and reality. How The Wing’s contradictory cocktail became a kind of poison


The Wing’s branding – a curling, golden “W” – still decorates the glass front door of its grand London premises on Great Portland Street. Though the private women’s members’ club is now permanently closed, its discreet sign remains fastened to a pillar at the building’s entrance. In an upstairs window you can make out the cushioned backs of mint-green chairs and pink sofas, two gold vases holding ferns, and an elegant white-orbed lighting fixture – remnants of the club’s celebrated interior, a multi-storey pastel fantasy, which has a posthumous existence on a thousand social media feeds. The London Wing, like its 11 sister clubs across America, was a child of Instagram, every patterned tile and organised-by-colour bookshelf both inspired by photography and inviting photography. 

When the pandemic hit in the early spring, The Wing declared it had lost 95 per cent of its revenue overnight and closed all its clubs. Most of the staff were laid off. “We simply don’t know when or even if we’ll be able to reopen again,” said one of its co-founders and CEO, Audrey Gelman. But even before the virus, The Wing had been in an uncertain state. Earlier this year, a run of media stories recounted how the US Wing’s space staff – those who cleaned, cooked, made coffee – were being treated poorly by both management and members. Multiple racist incidents were reported, revealing a culture in which black staff felt routinely demeaned. In March, the New York Times Magazine ran a long feature by journalist Amanda Hess who’d spoken to 26 employees about their troubling experiences. The headline: “The Wing is a Feminist Utopia, Unless You Work There.”

Working on the roof deck of The Wing in Boston, July 2019

The combination of reputational implosion and coronavirus was overwhelming. In June, Gelman resigned. The Wing’s social media feeds fell silent. A group of ex-staffers called Flew The Coup formed on Instagram, demanding compensation. In mid-October, an update from The Wing’s official Instagram offered an apology and an admission that they don’t know what the future holds, though the company’s website seems to suggest that there is, at least, a future. “We’re saving a space for you when we re-open,” reads the tagline, with a link to a “waitlist”. At the time of writing, however, all the spaces remain closed, and the company has 14 staffers left in its New York headquarters, down from 500.

The Wing’s branding – a curling, golden “W” – still decorates the glass front door of its grand London premises on Great Portland Street. Though the private women’s members’ club is now permanently closed, its discreet sign remains fastened to a pillar at the building’s entrance. In an upstairs window you can make out the cushioned backs of mint-green chairs and pink sofas, two gold vases holding ferns, and an elegant white-orbed lighting fixture – remnants of the club’s celebrated interior, a multi-storey pastel fantasy, which has a posthumous existence on a thousand social media feeds. The London Wing, like its 11 sister clubs across America, was a child of Instagram, every patterned tile and organised-by-colour bookshelf both inspired by photography and inviting photography. 

When the pandemic hit in the early spring, The Wing declared it had lost 95 per cent of its revenue overnight and closed all its clubs. Most of the staff were laid off. “We simply don’t know when or even if we’ll be able to reopen again,” said one of its co-founders and CEO, Audrey Gelman. But even before the virus, The Wing had been in an uncertain state. Earlier this year, a run of media stories recounted how the US Wing’s space staff – those who cleaned, cooked, made coffee – were being treated poorly by both management and members. Multiple racist incidents were reported, revealing a culture in which black staff felt routinely demeaned. In March, the New York Times Magazine ran a long feature by journalist Amanda Hess who’d spoken to 26 employees about their troubling experiences. The headline: “The Wing is a Feminist Utopia, Unless You Work There.”

Working on the roof deck of The Wing in Boston, July 2019

The combination of reputational implosion and coronavirus was overwhelming. In June, Gelman resigned. The Wing’s social media feeds fell silent. A group of ex-staffers called Flew The Coup formed on Instagram, demanding compensation. In mid-October, an update from The Wing’s official Instagram offered an apology and an admission that they don’t know what the future holds, though the company’s website seems to suggest that there is, at least, a future. “We’re saving a space for you when we re-open,” reads the tagline, with a link to a “waitlist”. At the time of writing, however, all the spaces remain closed, and the company has 14 staffers left in its New York headquarters, down from 500.

Perhaps it’s harsh to perform an autopsy on a company not yet dead. The Wing might revive, like many businesses suspended in a pandemic-induced coma. But the story of The Wing so far is a salutary tale, a lesson in how the contradictory cocktail of capitalism and feminism, of aspiration and reality, can become a kind of self-destructive poison. It’s also the story of how women fall.

The Wing didn’t start life as the Wing. Originally, the idea was “Refresh” – a place to shower and change between your work and your evening, where a professional New York woman could privately transform into a different version of herself. In that guise, it was an unashamed luxury service, something you could only afford and would only need if you were doing a certain kind of job, living a certain kind of life, earning a certain kind of wage. An early focus group was filled with New York people, people who knew people, the cool girls. 

But then Refresh became The Wing, still somewhere to shower and change, but also a place where you could work, eat, meet other women, feel safe, start a business, campaign on social justice issues, join a feminist revolution, feel included whoever you were, black, white, non-binary, trans. In its vision, it was a proudly inclusive space whose self-declared purpose was to welcome all women, and provide a setting where they could help each other to flourish. Membership wasn’t cheap, between $185 to $250 a month, but the company introduced a “scholarship” system for those who couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t just a space or a service any more: it was a mission.

The Wing’s founders knew, to the last square inch of teal velvet, how to dress this mission up, and how to sell it. The spaces lived as much on the company’s Instagram as they did in reality: square after square showcasing these palaces of surfaces – plush, gold, marble, and all the right pinks. The images were interspersed with The Wing’s particular kind of self-conscious branding, a tone that liked to play in the overlap of cute and witty, and found its way onto copious merch (towels that read “hers” and “also hers”; a white bathrobe embroidered with the slogan “extreme self-care”). Finally entering the physical space felt like surrendering to a fever dream designed by the Pinterest algorithm: an idealised interior that didn’t quite feel real. You’d ingested so much of the Wing’s imagery through a thumb-scroll, it was hard to believe it existed in three dimensions.

The Wing aesthetic in action, in New York City

I only went twice, both times to interview a member. The first was writer and actor Tavi Gevinson, one of the many ambassadors of the original Wing in New York, who featured in the inaugural issue of the company’s in-house magazine, No Man’s Land. The second was Tara Chandra, co-founder of Flo, a company that makes organic tampons. Chandra and I met in the newly opened London branch in the autumn of 2019, and sat on the kind of sofas that you’d save up for and then regret, because in colour and effect the sofa would be so specifically tied to the autumn of 2019 that a year later it would be like sitting on nothing but a faded trend. 

Chandra showed me round – to the café, the fantasy bathrooms and the portrait gallery with oil paintings of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michelle Obama. The whole conceit was a bold middle finger to the traditional London gentlemen’s clubs called things like Brooks and White’s. The Wing had thought of everything. The toilets stocked free tampons. The coffee came from a two-women roastery in Wiltshire, called Girls Who Grind Coffee. Their furniture was designed by women for women, “so your feet always touched the floor”, recalled Chandra. As two women of colour, Chandra and her co-founder had found the club welcoming, diverse and more affordable than the WeWork they’d frequented before. At WeWork, the members had mostly been male: “Inevitably I was hit on while I was there.” At the Wing, said Chandra, she felt like “this is a safe space, this is my place.” 

The autumn of 2019 was peak Wing. By then, three years into its existence, the co-founders – Gelman and Lauren Kassan – had raised $117.5m from big-name Silicon Valley investors such as New Enterprise Associates and Sequoia Capital. They’d taken investment from WeWork, too, who had evidently seen potential in their prettier, nicer rival. (In a bleakly prophetic moment, as it struggled to remain solvent, WeWork had to sell their stake in The Wing in January this year.) As a result, The Wing had expanded rapidly, opening 11 spaces, leaving a dusty pink trail across America as city after city received its own club. 

Audrey Gelman, co-founder and former CEO of The Wing – before her resignation in June

“The Wing is more than a company, it’s a phenomenon,” said Sequoia partner Jess Lee on Twitter, announcing their investment. “As @audreygelman often says, don’t just break the glass ceiling, let’s build a whole new house.” (Lee did not respond to requests for an interview). The company seemed to inspire such rhetoric. It arrived at a charged moment, just before the emergence of allegations against Harvey Weinstein and as a president was elected who’d once boasted of grabbing women “by the pussy”. In the Trumpian, #MeToo era, the idea of a whole new house in the form of a women-only space was a tonic, a place where a beautiful crowd could listen to Hillary Clinton in the comfort and safety of the alternate reality of its beautiful rooms. 

The Wing’s mission wasn’t just sold to eager investors and prospective members, but to new staff too. In interviews, they were told that this wasn’t like any other hospitality job. Sure, you’d have to make coffee, but in the next moment you might be chatting to Gelman’s close friend Lena Dunham. “You’ll be pitching her your next idea, that kind of thing,” said one former staffer at two different Wing locations. (Like many employed at The Wing, this staffer, let’s call her Anna, had a non-disparagement clause in her contract, which meant she was anxious about being identified. Many of the more recent recruits to the Wing had to sign even stricter non-disclosure agreements – NDAs – and are therefore not permitted to talk about the company at all.)

But for those working at The Wing, the notion that you might, between frothing milk, be pitching Dunham your screenplay, was quickly revealed to be illusory. As Anna put it: “I don’t think anyone really met anyone and had their career launched by being discovered as a barista at The Wing.” Members could be friendly, but for the most part they treated the staff as they might have treated staff at any other café or restaurant: as people who were there to serve them. At worst, as has been previously reported, some could be dismissive or abusive. 

Space staff had been told by management that they should feel like members, and use the space as if they were members. In the London branch, Chandra told me, the rapport between members and staff was genuine – she’s still friends with women who worked there. But for most of the ex-staff I spoke to, the disparity between the reality of their existence and that of the members was stark. If you were earning $15 an hour, as they were in the early days in New York (this later rose to $16.50), you couldn’t afford to be a member, for a start. Also, the staff wore uniforms, and they had jobs to do. They could pretend to be members, but they still had to clear up the coffee cups. 

Before the fall: The interior of The Wing in Boston, ahead of its opening on 17 June 2019

Attempts were made by staff to redress some of the disparities. Anna, who worked in the kitchen, asked if she could put a tip jar on the café counter but was told by a manager that The Wing was cashless, and it wouldn’t work. She suggested writing a jaunty little sign, something cute and Wing-like, but the answer was still no. “They were like, that’s really not on brand,” Anna told me. “And I was like, oh, that’s super interesting – making people aware of how little we’re paid is not on brand.” (A former Wing executive said that, as far as she was aware, the cafés had tip jars and there was no policy against them.) In LA, staff requested that they shouldn’t have to pay $15 a day for parking to come to work at the club, but the charge remained (the executive said it was removed). Similarly, after The Wing introduced Little Wing, a childcare service for members’ kids, staff argued unsuccessfully for the service to be free for those working at the space. They were allowed to use the service with a discount, but the cost of $60 a day was still significant if you were on $15 an hour. 

Varying recollections of the facts is what happens when a company, or a family, falls out: everyone has their version. Whatever the specifics, the tip jar, the parking and the crèche all reveal a similar tension. The staff had come to work at a place where they’d been told they’d feel equal and would thrive. The reality was that, while building what they thought was a socially conscious community for all women, the founders had created a microcosmic reflection of American society, a hierarchy in which the staff were not just the working class but the serving class, who existed to look after the levels above them.

The scholarship scheme was an attempted corrective, but in the way of all scholarship schemes only emphasised difference and had to be limited in scope: they couldn’t let everyone in for free. The Wing in the US was also revealed to be a society with clear racial demarcation: “Back of house and cleaning staff were all people of colour, basically,” Vie Darling, a former front of house associate in Brooklyn and one of the first to call out The Wing in the New York Times, told me. “And then the further up you go the less colourful and diverse it becomes.” Instead of sweeping away hierarchical systems, The Wing seemed to entrench them. (A former executive told me that 50 per cent of the executive team were women of colour, and that there was diversity at all levels.) 

One former Wing executive told me that staff seemed to interpret The Wing’s mission in differing ways: some even thought they were coming to work at a non-profit. Sometimes, the executive team were wary of being clear about what the Wing actually was: a company that had ambitious social aims but was also under fierce pressure from investors to grow quickly. They thought they could be a force for good and a profit-making business, but the difference between what The Wing said it was and what it turned out to be was a slow-burning fuse, destined to explode. Working at The Wing was like working anywhere else, except worse, because you’d been told it would be better.

When Anna had to hire staff at one of the new Wing locations, she decided she’d ditch the hard sell and tell them exactly what the job involved. “Other managers were like, it’s an amazing feminist utopia, and I was like, it’s a kitchen job,” she told me. The only perk, as she put it, was the fact that “you’re not going to have an asshole male chef screaming at you”. 

The Wing’s leadership knew how to create an impression of themselves that told the story they wanted to tell, a political skill. While Kassan took the back seat, Gelman was the more visible brand ambassador. She already had a profile as an impressive political operator – a former press aide on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and spokesperson for Scott Stringer during his campaign to become New York City Comptroller in 2013, before joining political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker. But Gelman’s personal story also became part of the allure of The Wing. She was known for being the inspiration for the character of Marnie in Girls on HBO, an ex of the controversial fashion photographer Terry Richardson (currently under investigation for allegations of sexual assault), someone whose 2016 Detroit wedding had been carefully covered in Vogue, down to the textile-inspired flower wall she’d created in a former car factory. 

It wasn’t long before The Wing was selling its own merch

Gelman seemed to straddle the worlds of politics and fashion, and she seemed to know everybody. As early members of the first Wing were recruited – co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement Opal Temeti, Glossier founder Emily Weiss, actor Natasha Lyonne, editor Tina Brown – there was a sense that if you joined The Wing you might simultaneously be joining Gelman’s circle, an anointed tribe. As the first visibly pregnant CEO to appear on the cover of a magazine (Inc in September 2019), Gelman was more than just a face of the company, but the living embodiment of its mission. 

Under Gelman, The Wing’s branding was more than your standard consumer flex. The leadership didn’t just want people to buy a product, but to join a movement. It was closer to recruiting converts to a religion or a political party than it was to selling a thing in a store. Potential members needed to see someone whom they wanted to be: Gelman, in the first instance, and then a series of “founding members” who were invited to join the club and were visibly associated with The Wing. 

As the London Wing prepared to open, the company invited four women to be founding members: Otegha Uwagba, Sharmadean Reid, Skye Gyngell and Gina Martin, an activist who had recently run a successful campaign to make “upskirting” a criminal offence. When she got the email, Martin was delighted. “I thought, wow, what an amazing idea – this space to support women, for women to be able to network, for anyone who identifies as a woman.”  It wasn’t clear what being a founding member involved, apart from, at this stage, taking part in a Vogue shoot with the other founder members which was pre-publicising the opening of the club. She said yes, flattered to be part of a quartet of impressive women. “So I did that shoot,” she told me, “and then I didn’t hear anything from them.”

Gina Martin, the campaigner who was invited to be a founding member of the London Wing

Martin forgot about the Wing until she happened to walk past the Great Portland Street building a few months later and noticed it was open. She walked in and explained to the front desk staffer that she was a founding member, though she wasn’t sure what that meant and hadn’t received formal membership. The staffer couldn’t find her on the system, but let her in. After that, she emailed the membership team a few times, trying to work out what was going on. She kept being passed on to different people, and never received a membership card. She went to work at the space a handful of times, out of indignance: “It wasn’t even like I necessarily wanted to, it was just like, this is rude.” Then she stopped going, uncomfortable with the arrangement, not wanting to have to play her part in the transaction which, she assumed, would be to promote The Wing on social media. When the stories came out earlier this year about the allegations of racist incidents and treatment of staff, she quit. 

Looking back, the invitation to join The Wing had an obvious and singular purpose. “It was PR,” said Martin. “It’s what I get from the government all the time – look, I’m with a grassroots activist so I must be good. But never talk to me again.” She’d offered a useful biography for the club to be associated with, and had thought that in return there might at least be “some kind of dialogue: what are you doing, what can we work together on?” That conversation never happened. The arrangement was for the image alone; the reality, a membership card that never came.

As criticism of The Wing grew and internal complaints from staff intensified, Gelman wrote a piece in Fast Company magazine in February 2020. She seemed to grasp both the micro and macro issues: her and her co-founder’s “blind spots” as white cis women, how hard it was for staff to advance in the company, the fact that they had prioritised “business growth over cultural growth”.  She wrote, “The hardest part was that these failures led us to inadvertently replicate some of the very social hierarchies we’d set out to dismantle.” Gelman described going on a listening tour of The Wing’s spaces to inform a new “Cultural Code” that would be introduced to members in the spring. She expressed pride that the executive team was now 50 per cent women of colour, and an acknowledgement of how it was challenging to get the balance right between building a “mission-driven culture” and scaling a business. The piece wasn’t enough to convince the staff. As one put it to me, it was hard to read the mea culpa as anything but a new PR strategy.

Washington DC became The Wing’s first location outside of New York

In March, as the New York Times published its exposé, the pandemic hit and the clubs closed, the company went into freefall. For staff who were let go, The Wing announced two months’ severance pay and an employee relief fund, partly funded by the CEOs, to which staffers could apply for one-off payments of $500 (some reported delays in receiving these). When the Black Lives Matter movement resurged in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, The Wing issued a statement of support and on 1 June announced its donation of $200,000 to the Brooklyn Bail Fund, Colour of Change and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The act provoked an outpouring of criticism from staff wondering at the company’s ability to grandstand on systemic racism when they had not dealt with the systemic racism within their own company and were in the process of letting many of their black staff go. 

On 10 June, The Wing’s social media feeds fell silent. (For a company who had used social media to broadcast an aspirational progressive lifestyle to which they were then selling access, perhaps there was now simply no point in posting: there was nothing to sell, and so nothing to say.)  The next day, Gelman stepped down: “The decision is the right thing for the business and the best way to bring the Wing along into a long overdue era of change,” she wrote to colleagues. 

Aggrieved by their treatment, in June ex-staffers formed a group called Flew the Coup, set up their own grant programme for laid-off staff, shared their stories on Instagram and organised a digital walk-out. Their requests to The Wing included to drop their NDAs and for a fund to be created for former employees to match the donations they had given to the various causes on 1 June. The group has since had a series of meetings with The Wing’s legal team to discuss their demands, but on 12 November declared on Instagram that negotiations were at a standstill.

For members, The Wing’s collapse has had its own frustrations. One former London member I spoke to, Donna Duffie, said her charity had joined The Wing in February and paid for three months. She’d never set foot in the building and been unable to either talk to anyone at the club or get a refund for the fees she’d paid. She later found out the London club was closing down permanently through social media.

In the US, meanwhile, over 700 US members gathered on Slack to discuss how to support former staff, according to a report in Fortune magazine. In July, a group of around 40 wrote to the remaining leadership – now a three-person executive team, including Kassan, Celestine Maddy and Ashley Peterson – and made multiple demands, including to close the racial pay gap among staff, improve employee benefits and introduce an anti-racism code for all members. They also demanded that Gelman resign her seat on the board, sell her 10 per cent share in the company, and for new leadership positions to be filled by external candidates, with at least two of the roles to be given to LGBT+ candidates or women of colour. In their October apology, The Wing confirmed that Gelman was no longer a board member.

Deidre Dyer and Lauren Kassan, co-founder of The Wing, attend the opening of the London club.

At the time, there were competing theories about Gelman’s departure. From those close to the company, there was a suggestion the decision was taken in a bid to rescue The Wing brand, so it was no longer the Audrey Gelman Show. Others suggested that the pressure on her from all sides had become impossibly intense. Either way, the company reached a point where the status quo was untenable. A rumour circulated over the summer that Gelman had taken a job in a diner near her second home in upstate New York, not out of financial need but as a kind of learning experience, to understand what it was like to work as a service employee. But to the wider public, once she’d left the company, Gelman seemed to disappear. For four months, there was silence, her parting shot an Instagram post from May: a pretty jug of wilting pink tulips. 

Reading Gelman’s Fast Company piece again, I tried to think how many male founders have written such articles at troubling moments in their professional life. Along with all the self-criticism and recognition of mistakes, there’s a flourish of anger. As more women and people of colour rose to leadership positions, she noted, “it seems necessary to project an image of flawlessness, knowing that we won’t be allowed to fail in the ways that our white, male, cisgender counterparts do—stupendously and repeatedly”. 

When Gelman stood down, it was the latest in a line of women CEOs leaving their jobs amid accusations of toxic or racist cultures in their workplaces (Fast Company called it “the GirlBoss reckoning”), including  Christene Barberich at Refinery29 and Yael Aflalo at Reformation.

In July, Sara Mauskopf, co-founder and co-CEO of childcare platform Winnie, wrote a piece for TechCrunch headlined, “The inevitable takedown of the female CEO”. She argued that, while there was no excuse for racist or poor treatment of staff, women founders tended to come under particular and unjust pressures, both aesthetic and ethical. “Articles often highlight when female CEOs curse, yell and show anger or bawdiness, because the shock value is higher than when male CEOs demonstrate these behaviours. We ask women leaders not only to be successful, but also to be ladylike and likable.” Given that such a tiny fraction of companies have women as leaders at all (5 per cent of public corporations in the US), she felt the amount of negative press they received was disproportionate. “The way we are targeting female founders and CEOs is doing nothing to encourage gender equality,” she wrote. (According to a Pitchbook report in early October, venture-capital funding for women founders had recently dropped to a three-year low). 

To be a “GirlBoss” is not like being any other kind of boss – that is, a man. You are both the executive and avatar of your company, its hustler and the animation of its brand. Mauskopf said a potential investor had told her he didn’t think she and her co-founder had the ability to build the same “branded cult-like following that some of these other female-led companies have built”. Mauskopf told him that wasn’t their plan: they were two former engineers who wanted to build an online marketplace; it wasn’t really about Instagram. The interaction revealed to her how the Gelmans of this world had been required to establish a model: don’t be just the leader of your company, but its beautiful advert. The image of these women is fetishised as they rise, and then weaponised against them as they fall. 

Gelman and Kassan were in their late twenties when they raised their first rounds of venture capital funding, “in the first phase of their life,” as Sharmadean Reid, founder of beauty platform BeautyStack, put it. Reid was one of the London Wing’s founding members, and is a friend of Gelman. She knows from starting her own business what accompanies the venture capital cash: “They give you this plane with no flying lessons.”

The actor Samira Wiley and the Women’s March national co-chair Tamika Mallory appear alongside Audrey Gelman after a screening at The Wing

Scaling a business at the rate venture-capital firms expect is challenging at best, painful at worst. According to one venture capital investor I spoke to (not an investor in The Wing), “most founders don’t know or aren’t educated on the economics of the venture funds they’re taking investment from”. The way a ven-cap firm works is to invest in, say, 30 companies over a ten-year period. They bank on one company skyrocketing and making the whole value of the fund back, a couple of others achieving the same together, and the rest following on, often far behind. (Nine out of ten start-ups fail, so the success story essentially covers the losses from the ones that don’t make it). Ven-cap is interested in fast, dramatic results, not low-return, slow-burn social experiments – typically, investors sell their position within eight to ten years. As such, it’s a model best suited to rapidly scalable software companies, but ill-suited to, say, real estate. (WeWork was a classic example of a private company unable to translate its projected radical growth into reality when it tried to go public and was, said the investor I spoke to, simply “wrongly valued”.)

Growing a company whose product is physical space and depends on a great deal of low-paid human service is not the same as building WhatsApp: people are going to get hurt.

Mauskopf and Reid both watched The Wing and Gelman’s fast-motion demise with some disquiet. “It’s just like, is there any woman we can look up to who can not mess up in a way that causes them to completely disappear off the face of the earth?” wondered Mauskopf. She conceded that many of the accusations against The Wing were probably fair. As she put it: “If you’re going to build your brand on empowering women, you’d better be sure you’re empowering all women.” But at the same time, it struck her that women leaders tend to be held to not just higher ethical standards, but to standards that any flawed human might struggle to meet. Reid described the reaction to Gelman on social media as a kind of “public stoning”: the kind of personal critique to which no failing man would ever be subjected. As she put it: “What a shame that in the history of venture capital when there have been hundreds of thousands of men who’ve had the opportunity to experiment with other people’s cash, and have had the freedom to fail, that this has been allowed to fail and essentially show women that they can’t have access to the experiments.”

It’s true: the treatment of women founders is different, the expectations higher, their exposure – out of sheer novelty – both brighter and crueller. But two realities can co-exist. The brutal reality of being a woman founder does not preclude the brutal reality of being a poorly treated, low-paid member of staff.

Sometimes, an incident reveals both things simultaneously. In the New York Times expose, a memorable anecdote recounted how Gelman once came down to a club kitchen to wash some dishes as part of a scheme where all corporate staff would spend time working in the spaces. Gelman’s dishwashing was then documented on Instagram. The photograph was supposed to show the mutually respectful working atmosphere at The Wing, but instead seemed to reveal that the company’s devotion to image-making was perhaps greater than their devotion to their mission of genuine equality.

One of the ex-staffers I spoke to from The Wing happened to have been in the kitchen when Gelman came down to wash the dishes. The problem, she said, was the way Gelman seemed to pass through for effect. “It was just one dish,” recalled the staffer. “And that was a pretty good metaphor for The Wing.” (This is contested: others say Gelman was there shadowing different aspects of the space staff’s duties for three hours and was pregnant at the time.) 

Gelman attends a dinner at London’s The Wing in 2019

Mauskopf found the palaver about the dishwashing incident to be “an incredibly gendered criticism. Of course, people all the time take photos of themselves doing things that they may not actually do in real life. That’s part of building a brand, and that’s part of how we all use Instagram. We would never, ever expect a male CEO to actually do the dishes for the company.” She made the point, too, that brands are always aspirational: there was no crime in positioning yourself as a potential feminist utopia because everyone knows that a utopia can never exist, it’s inherent to the concept. A brand, to her mind, was an ambition, an aim, a laudable but probably impossible idea. It was in the aspiration that things got incrementally better. Why make the perfect the enemy of the good?

Gelman re-emerged into public life, or at least Instagram, on 14 October. “Over the past four months I’ve gone quiet, and gone inward to do some deep work around what happened at The Wing and my personal role in it,” she wrote. “For a person whose life was lived across social media, this may have struck many as a cop out, and a way to hide. But it was important to me to do this work, and to begin private outreach to those parties who had been harmed as a result of working at The Wing.”

Responding to Flew The Coup’s demands for a public apology from The Wing’s founders, Gelman shared a letter that she had written to the group in which, in near-masochistic detail, she analysed every possible personal and structural failing at The Wing using words like “blitzscaling” and “invisibilized”. In what felt like a public act of self-flagellation, she wrote statement after statement expressing personal responsibility: “I chose to create a business model that was a continuation, not a radical reimagination of the service industry”; “I sought to gain personal financial success”; “I didn’t live up to the values I set.”

Responding to comments under her post, Gelman was keen to show that these were not just empty words: she was “making ongoing donations to the employee fund” and the post, she said, was “the tip of the iceberg in terms of the full process that is not being shared on social media”. The final frame of the post showed her brand-smarts in action: a pink square on which she’d written in an all-caps white typeface, “I am the former CEO of the Wing and I support Flew the Coup” – a perfect imitation of Flew the Coup’s own Instagram style. Evidently, Gelman wanted to support their cause, and to make this support known. When Flew The Coup later complained on Instagram about the stalling of their negotiations with the remaining Wing management, they credited Gelman with intervening on their behalf and donating $4,500 to their GoFundMe. In the stand-off between former staff and the executive team, Gelman had clearly picked a side.

Co-working at The Wing in Boston

Judging by many of the comments beneath Gelman’s post, however, her apology wasn’t enough: a battleground was emerging between some who were enraged by her attempts to appease and apologise, and others who felt she should be respected for her vulnerability in writing yet another fulsome piece of self-criticism, the kind you’d never read by a man. (In a recent newsletter, Charlie O’Donnell, a former Wing investor, noted how frustrating it was reading Gelman’s letter and “knowing I’ll never read apologies from the founders of Uber, WeWork or Github”.)  

The problem with public apologies is how performative they seem. Or perhaps the problem is that everything, even silence, seems performative if you have a history of performance. Reading the letter closely, it feels more like a speech, written in the heavy first-person and laden with rhetoric (“I chose… I chose… I chose…”). Gelman leaves no accusation unturned, her only public statement a comprehensive out-gunning of her critics. (Gelman declined to comment for this article, saying she was trying to deal with the matters at hand as privately as possible.)

The Wing’s response to Gelman’s post was its restrained and brutal opposite: “Audrey Gelman resigned as The Wing’s CEO in June and has since left the board of directors,” a spokesperson emailed me. “We are encouraged to hear of Audrey’s time of reflection and growth.” They posted their own apology two days later: “We can’t begin to rebuild without an apology to you, our members, employees and community,” they wrote before conceding that what rebuilding actually involved remained unclear. “The reality is, we’re still figuring things out,” they conceded. Some broad goals were listed: “inclusivity must be a top priority”, “empowering our team to succeed,” and a “commitment to diversity inclusion and anti-racism”. The post ended with an invitation for people’s thoughts and ideas, as we “together, co-create the future of the Wing”.

It’s hard to imagine what form a refreshed, rebranded, co-created Wing would take. To meet the simultaneous but differing demands of staff, members and investors feels like a reach. A co-working hospitality space in Covid-times is an unfortunate proposition, and a brand that has been so tarnished is not easy to revamp. In October it was reported that the company was considering filing for bankruptcy, though The Wing denied this, telling Page Six, “Despite the harsh realities of Covid, we are exploring every possible avenue we can to bring the Wing back stronger than it was before.” If they do come back, The Wing would have to be almost unrecognisably re-imagined. “If we’re talking about a 2.0, it would have to be so vastly different from the model on which this was built,” Gina Martin told me. “The thing that makes those entities thrive is the idea of exclusivity, and the idea of exclusivity is directly in conflict with inclusivity as a concept.”

Others have already attempted to remodel The Wing’s concept. Last autumn, Naj Austin launched Ethel’s Club in Brooklyn, a space and digital network for people of colour. From the beginning, as opposed to afterwards, Austin structured her company along strict ethical lines, with salary transparency, no traditional hierarchy and a $17-a-month fee for digital membership. “A word we never use at Ethel’s Club is inclusive,” Austin told me. “Because inclusive to what? It should always be from a position of intersectional.” From the beginning, she was particular about what investment she’d take on, turning down significant offers from venture capital firms who she worried would want her to grow at an unrealistic pace and so sacrifice her principles. (She’d noted the big Silicon Valley investors in the Wing and thought at the time, “this is not going to be good”.) Instead, Austin ensured that half of her investors were people of colour, mostly black women. As she put it: “I could have easily said I’m just starting a really trendy black Soho House and charge $200 to get in. I promise you I would be super successful right now if I’d gone down that path, but that’s just not me.”

To Austin, the fate of The Wing was inevitable in the context of the Black Lives Matter re-emergence, and the questions it urged organisations to ask themselves. “For me it’s sort of like, what did you think was going to happen?” Inclusivity is not something you can put on later, like a pretty jacket, nor can you tell people they are empowered and welcome if they don’t feel they are. “It has to be felt on that molecular level,” said Austin, “and if it’s not, we can tell.” 

Brian Armstrong, co-founder and CEO of Coinbase

In conversations about The Wing, the same question kept recurring: was it better for the company to exist in flawed form, or not to exist at all?  Mission-drive companies are more likely to fail by their own standards, but surely it’s better to have those standards in the first place. The alternative is to have companies with no higher aims at all.

In late September, Brian Armstrong, the CEO of cryptocurrency platform Coinbase, wrote a blog explaining that his company had little interest in engaging on matters of politics or social justice. “While I think these efforts are well intentioned,” he wrote, “they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.” Why try to be good, in other words, when you can just try to make money?

Armstrong received a mixed response. “All these white male tech leaders are like, this is amazing,” said Sara Mauskopf, despairing. In her view, this was precisely the time when leaders should be proclaiming for causes, even if they trip up along the way. “We absolutely should not fault the Wing for trying to aspirationally do the right thing, even if they weren’t able to execute on it,” she said. “They should be called out for not executing on it properly, but it’s not wrong to try… It’s wrong to be Coinbase.”

Maybe so, but for the sake of argument, at least the Coinbase position, while being morally vacuous, has the advantage of being coherent. Right from the start, The Wing’s stated mission was never going to be compatible with the internal reality of a profit-making hospitality company. Aspiring to something is not the same as doing it. Hypocrisy tends to sit sourly with people, and failure is far easier to forgive than bullshit. Ultimately, The Wing believed the story they were selling. They just didn’t see until it was too late what they were actually making: a mission destined to self-destruct and a toxic mirror image of the society they were trying to mend.

Photographs by Robyn Twomey / Redux / eyevine and Getty Images

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