There is a noticeable rise in numbers of women of color entrepreneurs, a force of which black women constitute the majority. While co-working space options like The Wing and WeWork are well-frequented and mostly on the North side of the city, spaces where women of color can learn, create, and thrive remain scarce or non-existent, especially on the South Side of Chicago.
As the founder of Brown Girl Project (BGP), Christine Griffith is on a mission to launch a co-working space for women of color to fuel their passions as entrepreneurs. BGP was born out of Griffith’s journey as a professional navigating social circles in Chicago that can sometimes be complicated for someone who is not a member of a Greek letter organization or alumnus of a local high school.
As of 2018, out of 4,000 co-working spaces in the United States, less than 60 spaces were black-owned. According to Griffith, less than 20 are owned by minority women. Griffith states, “If you are a successful black or brown woman that has created her own lane, you most likely will have to leave your neighborhoods to do business or find work environments that are comfortable, desirable, or provide the service and amenities necessary.”
“I started to think of the concept of it, right around the time WeWork opened,” said Griffith who previously worked for TimeOut Chicago. “The first time I ever experienced it, we didn’t actually have an office, we had a WeWork space.”
“What was cool about that was we got to vibe with the L.A. team out of this unique, well-thought-out, curated environment that was very much in line with our brand’s personality.”
“But at the same time, it was very much an environment of ‘bros’,”’ said Griffith. “Very male dominated, kegs at five; all which inspires that particular audience to engage the way that they do.”
It was Griffith’s visit to New York when The Wing opened, that planted the seed for BPG. “I flew to New York to look at their space because I thought that was exactly what I envisioned just from a different cultural standpoint.”
The shift in work style, various work environments, and amount of time spent outside of her own community, fuels Griffith’s desire to create a beautiful space that is not only comfortable for meetings but includes events, a “powder room” that includes showers, and labs for YouTube and podcasting.
“All of my clients are city-based or national where I would meet them somewhere in the city, and that just made me realize that I was spending so much time outside of my own community,” said Griffith. “If I wasn’t at the SoHo House I would be somewhere in Lincoln Park, just trying to find a beautiful space to meet and have conversations and entertain clients. I felt like it was necessary to have something in my own community where I wasn’t constantly doing that; because I’d be spending like hundreds and hundreds of dollars every single month just to be somewhere else.”
At this point, the question of why there needs to be a space specific for women of color usually comes up. Griffith’s response is that all women are welcome but she plans to be very intentional about being in neighborhoods where a resource like BGP is more than needed. “There is nothing divisive about focusing attention and resources around a group of people,” she said. “My concept is about location and catering to women within their own communities.” Additionally, Griffith states “I grew up in an environment in Arizona around predominately Hispanic and Native Americans and we definitely identified as having the same struggles.” Griffith said that while Chicago is unique, it’s also segregated. “We don’t intermingle in the same way, which is odd. But we do in certain settings. It’s interesting.”
Developing a community that not only requires the finances but property to make Brown Girl Project happen is a challenge. There are also many details that must be considered to ensure that a co-working space like Brown Girl Project is inclusive of all women, especially working mothers.
“As a working mom, I know firsthand the struggles of both raising children while also chasing your personal career dreams,” says Griffith. “Our place will allow for meeting spaces for moms on the fly with kids in tow!”
According to CoworkingResources, a little more than 56 black-owned co-working spaces have been created in the past decade. Research shows that this number will continue to rise but so will the barriers to make the existence of more co-working communities of color a reality.
Griffith states that the biggest hurdle has been real estate, particularly on the south side of Chicago in Bronzeville. “I would say disappointment is an understatement in terms of Chicago real estate, especially on the south side,” said Griffith. “Because a lot of the land is not even owned by us.”
“I’ll never forget the conversation I was having with a young guy for one of the properties on State and 47th,” said Griffith. “He said to me that ‘Well, your idea seems cool but I know the owner was really trying to hold out for a Dunkin’ Donuts or a McDonald’s.’ So, to do something in the community that may actually benefit the community is one of the reasons that he won’t sell the building? So, he’s waiting for some big corporation to take it off his hands? That’s an issue.”
Fundraising is the main priority for her dream to become a reality. “Right now, we’re in the fundraising stage,” said Griffith. “This is a $2 million effort and more because of us really wanting to also be in the Lawndale area as that growth is starting to happen for people of color.”
The current crowdfunding campaign is housed on ifundwomen, a platform built specifically for early-stage, female entrepreneurs.
“One of the reasons that we thought crowdfunding was necessary is it’s an opportunity for the community to be involved, said Griffith. “It’s not just about them helping me be successful, it’s more of an effort of helping fund something for our community that’s beneficial.”
Griffith also said that supporters should be aware that their contribution will help nurture the dreams and talents of young entrepreneurs. “There’s a lot of really great technology and innovation that we’re putting into the facility aside from just having a facility in our area,” said Griffith. “Because we can see that there are multiple ways that these young people can be inspired by technology and choose their own paths but they just need the resources and the resources have to be available where they are.”
In September, the BGP team has plans to host a private event for people to buy equity in the company. “There are brown girls all over the country who deserve a space in their community.”
Within the next five years, Griffith says that she simply wants to create a place for women of color who share her passion for innovation, to have a place to call home. “My goals for BGP are to be the place that women embrace as their second home and favorite place to be to meet new people, and connect with others from all over the city, country, world.”
“We want to be the leader in co-working space with digital platforms that fosters innovations for and by women.”
The vision to connect brown girls all over the world could very well start with BGP. The ability to connect women of color who are passionate about building together is powerful and holds meaning to many women of color in search of the right place to begin their entrepreneurial journey.
This blog post contains excerpts of ” A New Space for Black Women to Thrive is Coming to Chicago” by Monica Wingard. You can read the full article in the Chicago Defender here.