The Riveter — a woman-focused co-working space based in Seattle — almost didn't happen. But entrepreneur Amy Nelson braved rejection and found a way.
Look at this place. It is abuzz with purpose and potential.
People are sitting at tables holding business meetings. Others are sitting alone, tapping away at laptops. There’s a woman closed off in a corner space on a Skype call. And in the back, at a raised kitchen area, someone is making lunch.
It’s hard to believe that The Riveter — a Seattle-based, woman-focused co-working community with five locations — almost didn’t happen. It was almost discriminated right out of being.
Founder Amy Nelson didn’t know what she was up against when she headed out to raise money. In 2016, female founders raised just $1.4 billion — or 1.9 percent of total venture-capital (VC) funding. The following year, that number inched up to 2.2 percent, while all-male teams received 79 percent of the $85 billion invested in startups.
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“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Had I known, would I have done it?’ ” Nelson asked the other day. “ ’Why would I even try?’ But I started. And I like to finish the things I start.”
This month, Nelson and The Riveter got the boost they needed when, on their second round of funding, the team landed $15 million, led by a Los Angeles-based VC firm called Alpha Edison.
“It means that we get to bring The Riveter to everyone, everywhere,” Nelson said. “And I also hope that my being able to raise $15 million to grow a company gives hope to some other mother in Omaha — or someone, anywhere — that they can go out and raise money to build a company.
“That’s important,” she said. “Because you can’t build what you can’t see.”
With this infusion of cash, Nelson and her team beat some steep odds. Only 38 percent of male-run companies get what’s called “follow-on” rounds of funding — and women-founded companies only see 2 percent of that. (It’s worth noting that 55 percent of this round’s investors are women).
Nelson was confident last fall, when she left Seattle for New York, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley with The Riveter’s quick growth under her arm. Since it launched in May 2017, the company has opened five locations: Two in Seattle, one in Bellevue and two in Los Angeles. It has nearly 2,000 members (25 percent of them men) who pay $99 a month for an undedicated desk to $1,650 for a private office. There are plans to open locations in Texas, New York, Illinois and North Carolina, among others.
Nelson, a former corporate litigator, came up with the idea while taking small-business classes at various co-working spaces. She wasn’t comfortable with the male culture of kegs and pingpong tables. She wanted a place for mostly women, with networking and events that would create a community, and a movement.
But that premise didn’t resonate with the mostly-male VC partners she was pitching. They were the same sort of people The Riveter was seeking to get away from.
“You’re talking to a lot of white men aged between 40 and 60 who haven’t had the experiences that I have had and that members of The Riveter have had,” she said, “that would help them understand why we needed to do this, why it’s so important, why it’s working, why we’re making money and why we have the potential to make a billion dollars.”
When it came to this round of funding, Nelson was ready for a marathon of meetings and more of the same puzzled faces.
“I was like, ‘OK, you have to steel yourself over what would happen over the next three months,’ ” Nelson said. “ ’Steel yourself that you’re going to hear ‘No’ a hundred times, which is hard on the psyche when you’re sharing your story about what you’ve built and what you’re passionate about.
“I went out and I was like, ‘We should get funded in a day because we have an incredible business,’ ” Nelson said. “There are times when I think that if we were a bunch of white guys in our 20s, we would have a term sheet right now with what we’ve done.”
To prepare, she read Emily Chang’s recent book, “Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley,” about sexual-harassment scandals in Silicon Valley. Nelson, the mother of three daughters and pregnant with another, knows her place in that world.
“I am not a young woman that you would take to a party with hot tubs and whatnot, which is what VCs do,” she said. “I am older, I’m a grown-up, I’m a mother and I drive a minivan. I don’t present as the beautiful young ingenue.”
Instead, she presents as the head of a community of women who are making their mark in the startup world and, in the process, can change the face of corporate power in the country.
But that power is so out of balance that California this year became the first state to pass a law requiring women to be appointed to corporate boards.
By law or by sheer determination, The Riveter is built on the idea that women need and deserve the space — and funding — to let their talent and ambition grow.
“This money is validation that it is, in fact, good business to pursue equity in work,” said Kerry Murphy, The Riveter’s chief marketing officer. “This also fuels our growth, which means that we get to bring this into other, new markets. And we get to start sharing the stories of our members, which is validation. We get to fuel the ecosystem. And it’s good for business.”
Nelson asked if I had seen the cover of Time with a leadership team of women who have built a billion-dollar business. I hadn’t, I told her.
“One of the reasons you haven’t is because women don’t get funding,” she said. “Because you need funding to build Facebook, to build Airbnb, to build Uber. All of those companies got a lot of funding. And they were all started by men.”
Don’t get Nelson wrong. She isn’t angry at men.
“I am angry at the system, at the structure,” she said. “We have the ideas, we can build things as valuable in the market as the top five startups that were all started by men.
“But it is fuel for me.”