When Michelle Ward, 43, heard about the controversy at the women’s only co-working space collective, the Wing, last summer, she canceled her membership.
Ward, who works as CEO of the business coaching company 90 Day Business Launch, said that she “can’t believe” that the company is still in business. “I just personally didn’t want to be associated with the Wing and what they stood for,” she told The Post.
Last March, after a New York Times story alleging the Wing’s unethical and racist treatment of employees, the feminist haven received a tidal wave of backlash. Former staffers came together to create the Instagram account “Flew The Coup,” where aggrieved ex-employees started speaking up. There, they shared anonymous stories of being treated like servants, facing “racism and anti-LGBTQIA rhetoric” and even acts of physical violence.
In June 2020, the company’s CEO Audrey Gelman resigned and then later apologized for her inaction. A February essay in the Cut called the collective “an artifact of the Trump era.” Since May, five of the 11 original spaces remain in operation — Soho, Bryant Park, Flatiron, West Hollywood and San Francisco.
For many former Winglets, the controversy is reason enough to take their laptops and lattes elsewhere.
Since its inception in 2016, the Wing catered to the modern career woman; it was billed as a chic social club, built for high-powered feminists. With a selective application process, curated interior design, speaker events that once hosted Hillary Clinton, and a monthly membership fee ranging from $ 185 to $ 250, the exclusivity only made it more desirable.
Ward, who lives in Montclair, NJ, said she wasn’t surprised when “everything blew up.” After canceling her membership at the Flatiron location following Gelman’s resignation, she settled on an alternative — Luminary, a co-working space in Nomad for women (and “male allies”). There, she pays $ 810 for an annual digital membership, which gives her access to the two-floor space with rooftop views of the Empire State Building for an extra $ 20 a day (it’s $ 2,160 a year for unlimited access to the entire space).
Unlike the Wing, Luminary doesn’t have a rigorous vetting process. Anyone is free to join, which Ward found appealing.
“In the three weeks I’ve been a Luminary member, I’ve already connected with more people than I had being part of the Wing for a year,” said Ward, who is already using Luminary’s online networking platform to search for a virtual assistant.
Cessie Cerrato, a 40-year-old publicist from the Upper East Side, also ditched her Wing membership for Luminary.
“I just feel more at home at Luminary,” she said. “They’re friendlier, they’re nicer. Even before COVID, I felt like [at the Wing] it was a lot of smoke and mirrors in terms of inclusivity. I felt like it was a lot of show.”
Having been on a strict diet plan before her wedding, Cerrato found the Wing’s “no outside food” rule challenging. “They wanted you to buy the very expensive and mediocre food at their cafe,” she said. “Sometimes I’d just take my food and go outside or eat it in the stairwell.”
Sara N., 31, who works in advertising and declined to share her last name for professional reasons, applied for a Wing membership quickly after its second location opened in Soho in 2017. After eight months of radio silence, her application was only accepted after she name-dropped a friend.
She was excited to support a female-owned business, but quickly discovered drawbacks. When she brought her younger brother along with her to pick up her ID card, he was immediately told to leave the premises. (The Wing changed its no-men rule in late 2018 due to a gender discrimination lawsuit.)
“I think it’s pretty unfortunate that in order to promote inclusion, they have to not include others,” said Sara, who canceled her $ 250 per month membership in 2019. “I think it’s really important for women to have a space where they feel safe, absolutely. But I don’t believe in being a part of the problem. That kind of rubbed me the wrong way.”
Jesi Taylor Cruz, 31, who uses the pronoun “they,” said they were also made to feel uncomfortable at the Wing. The grad student and sustainability educator from Washington Heights was drawn to the space after learning about its child-care program, the Little Wing.
But as a black woman with vitiligo, a chronic condition that causes patches of skin to turn white, Cruz said that judgment from other members was blatant.
“There was a lot of looks, a lot of stares,” Cruz said. “Because I’m not a basic, generic white woman, they were like, ‘Who is this woman in our space?’”
Meanwhile, the creator of Flew the Coup — who asked for anonymity due to “safety” concerns, but said she used to work at the Wing’s front desk — said that the group is “currently in conversations” with the Wing leadership, including co-founder and current COO Lauren Kassan, about working to repair the relationship with former staffers.
The group is asking for the Wing to drop the NDAs of former staffers and raise money for their employee relief fund.
“We have spent a lot of time reflecting on the culture and company we built,” said a spokesperson for the Wing in a statement to The Post. “Since the Wing has been shut down for the past year, we have had the opportunity to evaluate our operations and culture. In order to best serve our employees and members, we have implemented a culture code to outline our values and expectations of members and employees.”
The company has also brought on an advisory board and partnered with Jopwell, a career advancement company that focuses on diversity and inclusion. Members are now allowed to bring in their own outside food. Due to limited amenities following COVID-19 protocols, membership prices have been reduced to $ 150 per month.
“They’re still moving [forward], but they know they can’t move without us,” Flew the Coup’s creator said. “It’s going to be very interesting to see who continues to support them — and obviously it’s entitled white women and women who just want that power.”