When Korede Akinsete, 26, moved to New York City from Lagos, Nigeria, she was desperate to find a space similar to her home, with a myriad of black people occupying all kinds of lives and levels of power.
“Now that I often have to be in rooms where I am the ‘other,’ I find myself craving spaces that simply allow people of color to exist,” Akinsete says. The global communications strategist went online in search of places that would offer her what she was missing. This is when she found membership-based clubs that focus on people of color.
Niche social spaces providing a place for people like Akinsete to get advice, consult with others, network, and vent about work situations, are on the rise. These clubs are usually membership-based and act as an outlet for non-white people who may spend much of their time in white-centered spaces, including workplaces, cultural institutions, and businesses they may frequent.
Whether in the form of co-working offices or restaurant tables where members might gather for a meal, these spaces are meant to serve as a social connection, a career accelerant, and a respite for those who suffer more often from micro-aggressions, lower salaries, fewer leadership opportunities, sexual harassment, and negative stereotypes than their white counterparts in the workplace.
Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan helped put the idea of identities-based workspaces on the map when they opened the doors of The Wing in 2016. Their main goal was to create a feminist co-working space where women could socialize and network while feeling safe and seen. The Gentlemen’s Factory in New York City provides a similar outlet for men of color. Club founder Jeff Lindor says his interest in creating a safe and productive space for men of color was inspired by the stark socioeconomic disparities between black and white people. The immigrant entrepreneur organized a men’s brunch in Brooklyn with a $50 entry fee, attracting 40 black men from all walks of life. It was a no-brainer that a need existed for these meetups. Soon, with the help of investments from friends, Lindor formed The Gentlemen’s Factory.
“I realized there weren’t enough spaces that spoke to the unique experiences of black men in this country and even in the world,” Lindor says. “There aren’t really spaces designed with us in mind and I want to help solve the isolation problem.”
A peek into a meeting of The Gentleman’s Factory offers a picture of men of color from all different age brackets and industries. Multimillionaires and college students sit at the same table. One member just earned a spot on Shark Tank after the club, in partnership with the entrepreneur-focused reality TV series, held a private pitch session. Another member, working as a consultant, helped five other members obtain certifications in their respective fields. One member launched a campaign for city council and found support from others in the club.
The benefits are endless when people of color are provided with spaces where they can gather, where they can access and invest in companies that cater to them without having to go out of their way to locate them. Members are starting businesses together, hiring each other for jobs, and directly circulating the POC dollar.
Some people might find these spaces to be segregating, the opposite of reaching equality, and the debate over the signals they send can be emotionally fraught. But Lindor’s business model doesn’t come from an emotional standpoint. “Our approach is from a data lens,” he says. “When you look at the disparities between black and white people when it comes to wealth, health, and other areas, it’s undeniable that there’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed.” The group doesn’t prohibit white men from applying, but instead emphasizes that the membership focuses on the advancement of people of color, a goal that is meant to be showcased in every prospective member’s application.
“The Gentlemen’s Factory isn’t anti-anything,” Lindor says. “It’s more so a place where members feel safe to just be rather than having to put on a performance or fit in.”
Another club on the rise in Brooklyn offers a focus on both men and women of color. Ethel’s Club is set to open its doors in November. Founded by Najla Austin, the co-working space and social club is built on her motto of “for us, by us.”
Like Lindor, Austin does not believe her organization is a form of segregation.
“Our focus and intentions are to center and celebrate people of color and POC culture, which is different from excluding non-people of color,” Austin explains. “Our space is for marginalized people and our voices to take up space in the ways that we deserve, but are rarely afforded.”
In other words, sometimes progress involves letting marginalized groups focus on themselves.
Spaces set aside for minorities have the range to benefit everyone in the long run. A 2017 study from Salesforce, which surveyed 1,500 US workers, found that people who feel heard at work are 4.6 times more likely to say they feel empowered to perform their best work. Another study that year found that the unemployment rate was 84% higher for black women and 53% higher for Latinas than it was for white men. Both sets of statistics argue for the existence of spaces where people of color can network and hire.
As Austin puts it, “People of color deserve a space where they can show up and not fear being excluded, considered, or discriminated against.” And when Ethel’s Club opens next month, Akinsete will have that space—she applied for a membership there and got one.