When Lisa Gordon set out to find the perfect coworking space for her new business, she knew she wanted one that met all of her needs.
"I knew I needed a space where I could feel very focused and be in my flow and push me past [these] dips while I'm making this transition [to entrepreneurship]," Gordon told NPR.
The retired psychology professor-turned-social entrepreneur said she tried a series of coworking spaces in the Santa Monica, Calif., area, but felt as though they came with pretentiousness that didn't feel welcoming — especially as a woman of color.
"Although it was very empowering, I wasn't able to relax. I felt that in the spaces I was somewhat singled out because there wasn't a lot of people who looked like me there," Gordon said. "And I accepted it because I didn't know that there was anything else available."
But there was. Ultimately, Lisa found her way to becoming a member of Blackbird House.
A community coworking space based in the Los Angeles area, Blackbird House aims to support, guide and advance women of color and their allies — both professionally and personally in a "safe space."
"I didn't see a lot of women of color represented [in coworking spaces]. I was curious about what it would look like to start a space like this," founder and CEO Bridgid Coulter Cheadle told NPR.
"We are unapologetically centered on women of color. But, we are also open to allies," Cheadle said, who transitioned into interior design after getting her start as an actress in the 90s.
When she was searching for an office space for her interior design business, Cheadle said she had a lot of trouble finding one that felt inclusive.
"I was always drawn to spaces created by women, for women. Eventually, I thought 'I really want to develop something for women of color,'" Cheadle said.
Women of color are still searching for inclusive work environments
The concept of coworking spaces aims to bring people together for a sense of community. But research suggests that women of color are still facing challenges in finding an inclusive job environment.
Researchers from McKinsey & Company say the pandemic has disproportionately affected women in comparison to men. And women of color "continue to have the worst experience at work."
In McKinsey's 2021 Women in the Workplace report, data shows that women of color only make up 17% of entry-level corporate positions in the workplace. And they only account for 4% of C-suite leaders.
Erika James, dean of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said in a 2020 interview on All Things Considered that change in the business world has been slow to reflect both the current gender and racial makeup of our country.
"I think if we can create social media platforms, if we can put people on the moon and if we can have self-driving cars, there's very little that we can't do," James said.
"So the fact that we have not yet created a more diverse work environment means that we simply haven't prioritized it," she added.
It's more than a coworking space
By offering in-person and digital opportunities that cater to the productivity, well-being and advocacy of women of color, Cheadle aims to expand the Blackbird House brand across the U.S. and internationally.
The flagship location in Culver City offers members a lineup of amenities that include a communal work environment, six private offices, multiple conference rooms, a meditation room and a café.
"Some people come in and they're like, 'I need to get my work done' and you can put your nose to the grind and get it done," Cheadle said.
"But then there's this other side of getting it done, looking around and seeing people [in the room] who look like you," she added.
Spending a significant amount of time curating Blackbird to feel welcoming to its members, Cheadle said she hopes this coworking space is more than just a "folding table in the back," but an experience for its members.
"I want you to walk in [to Blackbird] and think this is as beautiful as SoHo House or Noia House or any of these other spaces that are gorgeous and designed luxuriously. I want us to think of ourselves in that way," she said.
For Gordon, she says Blackbird is a space where she can be herself without the pressure of having to code-switch while working.
"It's perfect for me. It's what I wanted in other coworking spaces," she said. "I don't have to do that at Blackbird. I can just breathe."