Heather Ashby’s recently opened coworkHERS, a coworking space designed for women
Heather Ashby wanted to create a safe and welcoming work space, idea hub and community for women. She also needed to fill the enormous space she and her husband purchased at the historic Portland Masonic building at 411 Congress St. The challenge, as Ashby saw it, was to get people in the door. “What if it was a destination and they had a reason to come? What if it were a women’s-only space, a social club with activities and amenities?”
Ashby’s initial brainstorming began at her family’s kitchen table and grew from there into coworkHERS, a coworking space for women in Portland. Ashby, 50, had a career in marketing and also opened a resale clothing shop in Portland in 2012 before selling her half of the partnership to work for her husband’s real estate business. She was excited about this new idea, but wondered if the model had been tried before.
With help from a Google search, Ashby found several other thriving coworking social club spaces for women, including The Wing in New York City, which had a wait list of 200 women pre-launch and 3,000 women post-launch. The Wing became so popular it opened two more locations in the NYC area. One idea Ashby adapted from The Wing was a library of books by and about women. She also admired The Hivery in Mill Valley, California, for its modern décor and welcoming space, as well as workshops and “the sisterhood it creates” through shared community. Ashby envisioned coworkHERS as female-focused space that caters to women, but welcomes anyone who feels like coworkHERS is where they feel most comfortable, safe, motivated and inspired, she says. “Once I knew I was able to do this, and most likely it would work, I was off and running.”
She decided on the image of The Queen Bee for her logo and WorkHER Bee theme as a concept that would convey the idea of powerful, strong women working together. Currently, coworkHERS offers four different memberships: Queen Bee for $300 a month, which include a dedicated work space in a shared office; WorkHER Bee for $100 a month, which includes access to all floating work spaces; Honey Bee for $85 a month, a discounted membership offered to seniors, veterans and military service members and includes access to all floating work spaces; and Baby Bee for $40 a month, which includes 20 flexible hours a month and is offered to students ages 18–22. All memberships also include access to meeting rooms and lounges, events, printing services, daily locker use, a mailing address, coffee/wine/snacks, 24/7/365 key card access and a membership profile on the coworkHERS website.
Members also enjoy the company and expertise of women with diverse professional experiences in an inspiring environment.
“So far, we have a digital marketing strategist, a comedian, a dancer, some life coaches, consultants, several nonprofits, an attorney, a real estate broker…it’s a great mixed bag,” Ashby says. “We can have some great conversations and find ways to support each other personally and professionally.”
“Our organization is a natural fit for coworkHERS as we both strive to support women and the important work they do—work that invariably improves the lives of others,” says Sarah Skillin Woodard, executive director of Emerge Maine. “We couldn’t be more excited to be part of the coworkHERS community.”
Following a grand opening party last Dec. 1, coworkHERS opened its doors for working members on Dec. 4. So far, Ashby says she has had a positive response from the community. “People, male and female, are very supportive and grateful that I have opened up a space where women can feel comfortable and find the support they need to be successful.”
“I joined because I needed a beautiful space to hold meetings and classes for my female clients. coworkHERS has the right resources and ambiance for my needs,” says Kat Frati, founder of grownupgirl.com.
When it first opened, coworkHERS had 22 enrolled members, and Ashby has kept the number low in an effort to gauge how crowded the work space is during different times of the day. “I don’t want to have people mad that they don’t have a place to work when they arrive. As we move along in the next few months, I will probably find that I can add more members to the roster and be comfortable with that. I know coworking memberships fluctuate and I have to keep that in mind, too.”
The launch happened to coincide with news coverage and a growing national movement to expose sexual harassment of women in the workplace. “I was well underway with the space buildout, but it’s ironic and telling of the climate we are in, that this is something women want more than ever. I didn’t have a crystal ball, just followed my gut,” she says.
Ashby has faced some challenges launching the business, including the need to, as she says, “break out of my shell a little and reach out to people.” She’s had to network to find the right people to conduct workshops and events in the space. “I want to have diversity and depth in the group (to) really inspire each other. I think through the members themselves we can find a lot of ways to help each other, but having external experts come in and conduct seminars, roundtable discussions and workshops will ultimately help the most,” she says. Those range from a social media series and vision board workshops and pop-up events featuring local artisans and wellness professionals.
Ashby’s advice to others starting a business is to find a mentor and use the resources available in Portland, such as SCORE, a nonprofit dedicated to the formation, growth and success of small businesses.
“Go to SCORE and find a mentor. It’s free and hugely helpful. Then take all the free workshops SCORE offers and meet people and learn as much as you can,” Ashby says.
SCORE helped Ashby write her business plan, which “forced me to think through every single detail of the business, and it’s a great tool to refer back to, especially when you get frustrated and lose sight of what your original vision was in the first place.” Ashby revised her draft business plan seven times, until “the passion I had when I started the process came back.”
Ashby’s mentor to support her launch has been SallyAnn Gray, founder and marketing strategist at Verve Digital Marketing, who she met at a SCORE workshop. “If it weren’t for SallyAnn’s help on the website and email marketing, I would be in trouble. It’s hard to meet with contractors, get quotes from vendors and design the space…it’s a lot to do by yourself.”
Ashby also advises relying on friends and family for help; her best friend lived with her for a month before the opening of coworkHERS to help Ashby with the day-to-day tasks of being a working mother. Ultimately, Ashby says, “surround yourself with amazing women and you can’t fail.”
Ashby’s goal for the future is to physically expand coworkHERS beyond the existing space into the adjoining space once occupied by the Maine Red Claws basketball team, as well as to occupy the sixth floor of the building. “We have amazing views of the water all the way to Portland Head Light and views of City Hall, Back Cove and downtown,” she says. Fortunately, her husband is her landlord, and they’re working on the vision together. “The build-out will be expensive, but if we fill the other remaining vacancies in the building, my husband agreed to help fund the expansion. I am hoping to do some crowdfunding to help raise the additional funds, and since so many people are behind this endeavor, it might be possible to get some of those people to help support this.”
Ashby also hopes to open up the space to the public for ticketed and free events.
For more information:
411 Congress Street, Portland
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.