This Women's Coworking Space Is Leading With Intention
Sphere, a wellness-focused women's coworking space in Oakland, is tackling issues of diversity and inclusion in an industry that threatens it every day.
With working remotely becoming more common practice, shared coworking spaces are popping up everywhere. Naturally, as with any growing market, the options are expanding and evolving — with women-centered spaces at the forefront. In a time where female empowerment is at an all-time high, these companies are going beyond simply providing a physical place for women to work, but instead offering a community for them to connect, support, and bolster one another.
From the decor to the events and opportunities, each of these women's coworking spaces offers its own flavor. I'd already been to The Wing for an event (and you've probably heard of it too, with locations in San Francisco, NYC, Chicago, etc.) so when I received the opportunity to visit a new, different space, Sphere in Oakland, I jumped on it. With their focus on wellness and diversity, I could tell from the get-go my experience at Sphere would be different from The Wing. I was excited to learn more about this new space on the other side of the Bay.
Sphere was created after co-founder Gina Tega found herself going down a road of self-exploration that included various types of self-help books and retreats, only to notice that when she returned to Oakland, she felt a disconnect and inability to incorporate anything she learned into her daily life. She began curating events for women and realized a need for a community that not only allowed women to connect, but be able to implement these wellness practices. Teaming up with fellow co-founders Marielle Lorenz and Signy Judd, the three women decided to set forth in building a space that would integrate those needs. That was in October 2017, and about a year later they signed a lease in downtown Oakland — completely self-funded. Sphere opened in March 2019, and there is currently a waitlist for certain memberships.
Sphere puts a huge emphasis on two categories: diversity and equity, and wellness. This was particularly interesting since Sphere is located in an area of rapid gentrification. When talking with Tega, we discussed these topics in depth.
First, I wanted to know how Sphere was different from other coworking spaces. She made it clear they do not think any space is better or worse than another, but that it's a matter of finding what's right for you. She expressed how Sphere's wellness is not merely part of branding — it's an authentic part of what they believe and do. Everything is intentional. For example, they don't offer workout classes or services because they think it's cool, but rather because they feel its important for all women to have access to these things. Sphere is not overly-curated or precious, and as someone who has spent a day there, it really does feel genuine.
Next, I wanted to dive into diversity, something that undoubtedly has become a roadblock for many women's coworking spaces. Tega came right out and said it: "We did not want it to be a rich white women's club, and we were worried that might be what it looks like, especially in Oakland where its gentrifying so quickly. We didn’t want to be a part of the problem, but we wanted to be as much as a solution as possible."
Therefore, their second hire was Lily Williams, the equity and community outreach director. Together they pulled demographic information for Alameda County and the city of Oakland in order to look at the community makeup so that their membership demographics would align. And they knew that bringing in diversity was going to require outreach. "We didn’t do outreach to anybody that wasn't a person of color or in the queer community," she explained.
They didn't want to start in a "white hole" that could deter some from joining the community. When Sphere launched they had 50% women of color, a percentage which has since grown. They also support the community by providing free event space for organizations and groups, as well as community-funded memberships, which currently constitute 17% of their membership. Considering new members come primarily through word of mouth, they've clearly found success with their approach.
While Sphere has achieved short-term goals, you can't help but wonder how these principles will be sustained. The wellness and lifestyle industries are dominated by (often white) privilege, and it seems like it would be easy to quickly slip into that space. Tega and the other founders are actively working to stay on top of it, though. "It’s something that takes a tremendous amount of intention, because if it doesn't have attention put toward it, that is what happens," Tega explained. "We already have someone on staff that does diversity inclusion, and we just hired a consultant. She's coming in and evaluating all our internal processes as well as all of our staff. She's doing an assessment and giving us what it is we need to do to prevent that from seeping into a culture that we feel like we have in a really good space right now, but that without continued attention and intention will deteriorate."
This means being intentional with everything from what the fitness instructors look like, to which chairs they buy, to the beauty products in the bathroom — which is something I noticed right off the bat. I was hit with an a-ha moment once I realized that, whether at a coworking space or workout studio, the beauty products in the bathroom are almost always tailored to white people. Tega told me she had the same moment when she went to buy the communal flat iron and was reminded to consider the type of hair it would be used on. She said, "It was not on my awareness initially because it takes the constant intention of what does this look like not just through my lens, but through the lens of everyone out there."
These things may initially seem trivial, but when you think about it, they're integral in making sure everyone is included. "It's all a good reminder that this work is a marathon and not a sprit. It’s not a box to be checked. We don’t pay for the consulting work and then she finishes and gives us our report and now we’re good — things are evolving all the time for sure," Tega said.
So what's next for Sphere? Tega used an analogy to explain. When they initially started, they were flying at 30K feet with a vision, she told me. Then, as they set the plan in motion and opened up shop, they went down to ground level, working out all operational aspects, from how check-in would work to who would mop the floors. Now that they have that under control they're ascending, looking at what's next. "Now we're pulling back and saying, what does the future look like for us?" She continues, "It looks like something bigger than this."
Sphere is located in Oakland, CA, and offers four membership options. You can read more about Sphere here.