We spoke with Naj Austin about the importance of having creative spaces for Black professionals, the financial hardships she faced while building her company and her advice for other entrepreneurs.
Published March 17, 20216 min read
As a young professional in New York City, Naj Austin searched for a space where Black professionals could socialize and network. She found that space didn’t exist. In early 2019, she started coming up with what would become Ethel’s Club, a social and wellness space for people of color to expand their professional network, share artwork, find therapists and cultivate social connections. The response was overwhelming, and Naj soon quit her day job to focus on Ethel’s Club full time. We spoke with her about the importance of having creative spaces for Black professionals, the financial hardships she faced while building her company and her advice for other entrepreneurs.
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My grandmother was a community organizer. She probably would have never identified that way, but she definitely was. Her home was the place everyone went to if they had problems, if things went really well in their life, or if they just wanted to hang out. She believed in this larger sense of community, family and staying connected with one another. So when I was thinking about what Ethel’s Club was like, I considered what the essence of it would be, and what kept us rooted in this bigger idea of trying to connect people in a more intimate manner. And I felt all of those things when I was in my grandmother's house. So it was always really important that what we were offering not only focused on the members, but also on uplifting the community at large.
I faced a lot of challenges as a first-time Black female founder, particularly around early financing. I overcame them by building a brilliant team who helped bring [Ethel’s Club] to life. With an amazing product we brought on investors and customers who were excited about what we were creating.
On top of that, we opened a few months before the pandemic hit. I think the biggest challenge there was having to move from a physical location to digital in a day. It was definitely not something I had ever planned for. We had a vision of going digital some day, just not without a plan and not without data. Having that plan and data is where I feel most comfortable and when that was taken away, I had to do something. I learned that even with all the data in the world, you still may fail.
It was a combination of factors — I needed a team, but most of our early team members found me. I think they were looking to leave their roles at companies that weren't serving them in whatever way, and looking for something that could not only could help their career, but was also something that was meaningful to them. Our very first hire read about us in the New York Times and emailed asking to be part of [Ethel’s Club]. I had a lot of inbound emails from people who wanted to work at a place that fully sees them for who they are.
They said things like, ‘I'm working on these sort of white-led spaces where I feel like I'm not included and it doesn't make me feel good to show up and work there every day, and I'd love to work in a place where my identity is thought about and is centered in this factor.’ Unfortunately we didn't have a ton of roles we could afford to bring on. Each person was like a stepping stone to building and creating a clear product. Then ultimately what became the final product was definitely part of everyone, their own essence was brought into it and shaped what eventually became the first version of Ethel’s club.
There is both power and safety in a shared, collective experience. In our digital clubhouse, members take advantage of our wellness offerings where they can learn practices and rituals dedicated to self-care. We believe in nurturing our community through programming that grounds, inspires and celebrates their identity,
One of the biggest differentiators is the fact that we're centering it around our audience. If you look up wellness, teachers of wellness, or healers, you're immediately met with images of blonde white women. It’s a very specific point of view, which has made the wellness field, something that is not attainable and rooted in something that costs a lot.
We’re trying to give people tools to practice and be well on their own time. Reclaiming time is hard to do now and people can really help you alongside your journey who have the right tools to do it. Probably one of the things we care about the most is making it feel more accessible.
I think it's important because for business leaders specifically, there are almost two parts of you. There's the outside facing part where you are killing it. And then there's the other part of you, where you're just a normal person who hates bananas and likes to play video games on the weekends. The dichotomy between the two is something that I've definitely struggled with — who I actually am in all of this, and who is taking care of the Naj that is not leading stand-ups and investors in board meetings, who is that other person, and how is her mental health? If you haven't reconciled the two, it increases tomorrow burnout and you’ll end up not leading the team in an effective manner because you’re burnt out, and it becomes a snowball effect.
I go offline for three to four days twice a year. I literally go off into the woods where there's no Wi-Fi, and every time I come back, I'm a new revitalized person. Taking that time away allows your brain to work in a different way. Even in my day to day, I don't take meetings on Fridays and I'm trying to move toward a four-day work week. This idea of being able to preserve our best selves is important to me, not just as something I like to talk about and it’s an actual practice within our company as well.
I neglected my mental health (ironic, I know) for a long time. Investing in a business coach and other mental health resources has helped me as a leader. My biggest takeaway is this: Make the time and spend the money! If you have the resources to take care of yourselves mentally, one should.
My current financial goal is to make my first angel investment! I have always been drawn to incredible people trying to change the world in a big way. Playing a small part in their journey would be a huge goal of mine.
Not every startup works in a linear way, mainly because not everyone has friends and family they can raise capital from. So they're called angel investors because they usually come in early and they usually write personal checks to early stage founders who maybe are just building out the prototype or really trying to get started. I know how important it is to have someone believe in you at that stage — it allows you to get up, to build the product.
Image: Nastia Kobzarenko