Meet Melissa Wong, Co-Founder of New Women Space
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Wong, co-founder of New Women Space. Melissa spends her time thinking about how best to bring people together for shared learning and support. She loves facilitating meaningful conversations and designing curricula that inspire connection and new perspectives. In partnership with Sandra Hong, who initially founded a weekly event series called GIRL PARTY in response to the lack of social spaces designed by and for women in Brooklyn, Melissa opened New Women Space -- a community event space focused on providing wellness, skill building, professional development, and community events to women from all experiences. We spoke about some of Melissa’s biggest learnings from her experience so far as a space-maker, facilitator, and highly intentional business owner.
Let’s start with some background. What experiences led you to decide to found a women’s space, specifically here in New York?
Melissa: I think women should have spaces everywhere, though New York exacerbates people’s desire for a community. There are so many ambitious people here. We want people to feel connected to neighbors and supported in their professional pursuits. Those were two goals we had in mind when starting New Women Space.
From personal experiences, I’ve tried to go back in my mind and think, “When did this happen?” The “aha” moment came during my last official job working at Kickstarter on their customer support team. I took an internal survey that asked employees to review past projects we supported [on Kickstarter]. Most of the projects I’d backed supported women or girls, so I thought, “Huh, I must care about women…”
I don’t have a story of working in a company and feeling like I was totally mansplained to, or not getting a salary I asked for, so my desire might have stemmed from growing up playing competitive sports and living in an era of girl power. I always wanted to be a contender and feel equal. I’m very mindful of equality and fairness, and it didn’t feel like women were given the same opportunities as men. At New Women Space, we think a lot about what resources we can provide to level the playing field for women.
Sandra’s story is that she had her “aha” moment at Pride Weekend in 2015. Marriage equality was being announced and she found herself without a community to celebrate with. There are a handful of active QPOC communities that exist now in 2017, but at the time, she hadn’t yet found a place for her. So she made one instead.
How did the two of you meet, and why did you pair up as business partners?
I was getting to know Jen Jones, the owner of New Love City, a yoga coworking space in Greenpoint. She put together a casual group of women who she thought could benefit from knowing each other. Sandra showed up. I went to one of her events for GIRL PARTY, the company she founded, and she came to one of our events at New Love City, and then the two of us got coffee. I liked her energy. We both realized we believed in in-person gatherings and in having space as a way to grow community. Fast forward 5 months, and we were asking, “So, why don’t we take this to next level?”
Initially we thought we were going to do a one-month pop-up. Then we realized that wasn’t going to foster the interactions we wanted. We didn’t have full-time jobs, so we could be flexible in accepting a longer lease. Then the space fell from the sky into our laps. Meanwhile, as we got to know each other, we realized we shared values and had complementary skill sets. I have more of a customer service and community engagement background, while Sandra has worked more in the creative and advertising industries.
What have been some of your most surprising learning experiences since opening the space?
New Women Space is for-profit, so we’ve been learning our own bandwidth as space-keepers. It takes a lot of energy to host people and run events regularly. We’ve only been open for about 5 months, and our main source of revenue is ticket sales, but it can be hard to predict how many people will come in the door. That said, we didn’t opt for membership right away, because we’re a lean team of two. We’re rolling out things like drop-in coworking and donation-based yoga classes that have been easier to get up-and-running. We’re not opposed to membership, but want to consider: does it help people feel included? Or does it make people feel excluded? We want to be intentional in each decision we make.
We’ve thought a lot about the values of our space. I’ve been to a lot of events feeling like I’m a consumer being entertained. Across the board I’ve seen that people feel better when they feel engaged, and the way you engage them is to involve them. So we stress participation. Even at orientations for instructors, we suggest tweaking parts of the event plan to see how you can make it more participatory, with more people talking and connecting to build empathy. Lately, we’ve been thinking about NWS as something of a spoken word project. It’s an exchange of different perspectives. There’s learning in that.
Given that your first months of programming have coincided with intense politics, how did the election influence New Women Space?
We opened the space before the election, and we didn’t see any of this coming. It was interesting the week after the election, because we had a Print and Zine Fest scheduled. We just weren’t sure what the energy of the day would be. At the event, it was fulfilling for me to realize that I’m the owner of a women’s space, and women are feeling threatened right now, but they can feel comforted knowing there is a space for them at these times.
Just last night, for example, one woman shared something very vulnerable and pretty darn horrible that had happened to her. This was during an event run by one of our group residents, It’s Not Personal, who deals with romantic relationships. In moments like that, we know we’ve created a safe enough space for her to share. Everyone was supportive, even though they were listening to something that might have made them feel uncomfortable.
There’s another community member who runs a storytelling collective centered on decolonizing storytelling and radically reimagining the way we talk about intimacy and vulnerability, called Collective Sex. We hosted one of their events. Usually at the beginning of events, they recite a whole manifesto about values, but by virtue of our space being a space for women, she told us she didn’t feel like she had to go there.
Even though we’re starting to see familiar faces back in the space, we really started by bringing in people who have their own communities. Throughout all the different groups in the space each day, I’ve felt this persistent quality that I think is special and unique to women conversing with others in spaces that feel safe and supported. Even if you walk into a place, you can see if people know each other, if they click, if they have baggage. Because our space is small and approachable, we aim to make people feel welcomed and acknowledged for coming. We hope that puts them at ease and lets them sink into the couch.
On a more general level, what are your thoughts about maintaining open dialog within safe spaces? What is a facilitator’s role here?
It’s a very sensitive time. As we do more political events, we’ll have to be more mindful that sensitive conversations will come about. We’re about diverse experiences, difference of opinions, and we’re a space for women to define.
Before this project I went to a lot of facilitation workshops. My thinking was if people are going to come to part of what I’m building, and I’m a facilitator, what proof do I have that I am to be trusted in this role? There are classes available at places like the Design Gym, which runs a facilitation practice lab. Facilitation skills are skills you can work on, and it helps to practice and learn tactics, though some people’s personalities might be better suited for listening and remaining neutral when hearing differences of opinion.
What was cool about facilitation bootcamp was that we practiced dealing with difficult personalities. We learned that in meetings, when someone’s talking a lot and going on tangents, you make the person feel welcomed and engaged, but you still have to have eyes on the back of your head. Are other people tended to? You just need to be really aware of everybody’s perspective. That’s a big task. Design Gym also has a theory of different levels of listening. There’s a lot of empathy -- which is such a buzzword right now, as people become more aware of the need for it -- in our attentiveness when listening. If we can embody someone else’s experience, we’re all going to be more understanding.
Speaking about embodying other people’s experiences, how do you keep the space accessible to people who can’t afford ticketed events? And how do you balance this with your need to be economically empowered as business owners?
We want to be accessible. We do donation-based yoga classes, and I don’t know any other studios that do that. Self-care is important, so we want that to be open to people. Our $20/day drop-in coworking can also be much more affordable than membership to a co-working space. We’ve made other changes to our offering keeping accessibility and sustainability in mind, like moving to a room rental model that keeps rental prices fairly low.
Our tagline is, “Every mission needs a home.” With one-off events, we realized how much energy people spend finding their space, communicating with space-holders, and sorting out pricing options. We just started a group residency program for organizations that have an events component and are looking for consistent space. We have 4 group residents in our inaugural group: It’s Not Personal focuses on creative output from romantic relationships, Creative Healing addresses grief and healing through creative mediums, Brooklyn Plans offers financial planning that supports women, and Well-Read Black Girl connects women of color who love connecting over books. They all have monthly access for 4 months, so they host once a month, and we ask that they meet up twice in the 4-month period with each other to get input and resource-share. It’s more of a profit-share model. We hope group residency is a way to maintain really strong connections and regular programming. With Glory, who runs Well-Read Black Girl, it’s just really nice to have 30 women down in our basement level talking about books and Skyping in with the author, and to know we’ll see some of the same faces next month. In April we’ll start reaching out to people to be in our May group of residents.
My favorite and final question: What can readers do to support New Women Space?
Come be a part of it if you can! If you don’t live in NYC, subscribe to our newsletter and share events with people you know in New York. Come to events, host events, and direct your friends here who are freelancers and want space to work. And of course, you can follow us on social platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.