Civil rights were good for Audrey Gelman, co-founder of the exclusive women’s club and the collaborative Wing, until they were not.
She navigated adroitly across the cultural tide of feminism, female empowerment and the #MeToo movement and transformed from a publicist to a veritable power broker.
Gelman, 33, resigned Thursday. Shortly after she did so, employees went on a virtual strike to protest her leadership and to ask for major changes in management for Wing.
“The company is elevating leadership from within to create a newly formed office for the CEO that will consist of Lauren Kassan, Celestine Maddy and Ashley Peterson,”
“The decision is the right thing for the business and the best way to bring The Wing into a long delayed era of change,” Gelman wrote to colleagues. She has an ownership stake of more than 10 percent in the company and will remain on the board.
“I look forward to spending some time as a mom at home,” Gelman said in an interview Thursday night. She refused to comment further.
“We have been told over and over by our leadership that we are a contract-driven company, although the company’s actions consistently prove otherwise,” employees wrote in a statement Thursday afternoon. “In solidarity with so many of our colleagues – past, present, and especially the black and brown people without whom The Wing would not exist – as a united group of employees, we participate in a virtual walkout that begins today. “
Deidra Nelson, the company’s chief financial officer and one of two black women in the company’s C-suite, also resigned.
With her business partner Miss Kassan, Ms. Gelman Wing founded 2016 with the idea that women in gig economy New York needed a place to meet, network and update their makeup.
Less than a month after opening the club’s first location, in New York’s Flatiron district, Donald J. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the presidential election and suddenly Wing was given a new assignment and urgent. It chartered buses to ferry members to Washington for the inaugural Women’s March and offered its members panel discussions such as “Workshop on Anxiety & Depression in a Post-Trump World and” A Conversation With Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “
As they gathered around ideals to fight patriarchy and celebrate a diversity of female and non-binary members, a brand was born. Over the next three and a half years, Gelman and the Treasury raised more than $ 100 million from venture capitalists and investors such as Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, and soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who opened another eight locations, from London to Los Angeles. .
In the midst of the hoopla and news media attention she requested, Gelman became a self-proclaimed president of Instagram-friendly feminism, and appeared on the cover of Inc. and on the pages of Vogue.
But the Black Lives Matter movement, boosted by the police killing of George Floyd, has not played to Ms Gelman’s advantage.
Despite the outward attention to promoting diversity among its membership, the majority of Wing members were white and had the means to pay the fees. (In New York, membership costs $ 215 per month to join a club and $ 250 per month to attend. Fees are waived for approximately 300 low-income members.)
While the company’s staff was about 40 percent people of color, the employees who ran the spaces themselves – the cafe workers, cleaners, the maintenance staff, the desk gifts – were hourly wage earners who were mostly colors, according to former employees.
Tensions began to rise to a boil last summer, when a change occurred at the Wing location in West Hollywood between a white guest of a member and a black member. Employees who witnessed the change said they felt the white guest was wrong. In accordance with the Wing statutes, employees warn the white woman that she would be banned from space.
But Ms. Gelman and Ms. Kassan twisted the decision. Employees at the West Hollywood location and at New York’s headquarters were upset, according to two former senior employees.
Early this year, 26 past and present employees described low pay and poor treatment of employees in a New York Times Magazine article.
When the coronavirus hit, Wing had to close its seats and laid off more than 300 people. The company announced a Wing Employee Fund. Between April 15 and June 7, employees could apply for one-time grants of $ 500 each.
By mid-May, several former employees had received their checks, but others were not. On June 1, an employee who requested an update of their payments received an email saying that “the fund is currently paused as we continue to raise more money and distribute grants to existing applicants.”
Then civil rights protests began to multiply in what became a national watercourse for moments of racial justice. Companies around America have tried to position themselves on the right side of history by posting on Instagram about their commitment to anti-racism.
The wing was among them and told its 548,000 supporters that it would make a $ 200,000 donation to causes related to the Black Lives Matter movement. It was the same day it told some employees that it was running out of money and couldn’t save $ 500.
“This is a time of unpredictable grief,” the post said. “The wing unilaterally condemns all racist and state-sanctioned violence against black communities. We stand with the protesters who put their voices and bodies on the line to advocate for the serious change we need in this country. “
The answer might not be what Gelman and her colleagues had hoped. “Shut up, how do you have 200,000 for organizations when you still haven’t paid many employees who applied for employee assistance fund?” said one commentator among many. “Especially black & brown space staff who earned $ 16.50. Great yikes. Check your priorities. “
Others took the opportunity to highlight general working conditions for people of color on the wing.
“Black lives did not matter when the majority of black staff were crying in the break room from the abuse of our superiors,” wrote Tahirah Jarrett, 29, a former employee who was paid per hour. In an interview Thursday night, Jarrett agreed to publish his comment. “Black lives didn’t matter when I said I had miscarriage and was asked to come into work. The black women in Dumbo had a whole group chat that we talked every day for MONTHS because we didn’t feel safe working at the wing. Black lives do not matter to call. “
The frustration among employees and former employees continued to peak over the past week, with employees taking steps to organize a response through group chats and emails.
On Monday, a black female executive assistant who had supported both Ms. Gelman and Ms. Kassan ended. (Mrs. Gelman’s executive assistant has been fired.) It was a catalyst for some employees to organize and organize their strike.
Mrs. Gelman went down. Shortly afterwards, Instagram posts and tweets began to emerge, saying: “Audrey Gellman’s departure is not enough.”