Throughout her career on Wall Street, in the courtroom, and at non-profits, Amy Nelson wondered where the women were. She graduated from law school with a class split evenly on gender, but saw few of her female counterparts become law firm partners. She looked at the Fortune 500 list and saw just 24 companies led by women.
And when she had three children in four years, Nelson realized that corporate America didn’t provide an easy way for new parents to continue their career growth.
“I spent so many years living in a house where I didn’t feel comfortable,” she said. “And so I wondered, what would it look like if I built a new house?”
That new house is The Riveter, a female-focused co-working space operator that Nelson and team launched last year. The Seattle-based startup counts 800 members and recently raised a $4.75 million venture round led by Madrona Venture Group to expand its model nationwide. It will open a new location in Los Angeles next week, and in Bellevue, Wash., this summer, adding to its two existing facilities in Seattle.
Nelson gave the keynote address at the University of Washington Business Plan Competition awards dinner Thursday evening in Seattle. She recounted her unconventional route to becoming a startup founder and shared lessons learned from her entrepreneurial experience thus far.
Nelson also rattled off statistics about the gender imbalance in entrepreneurship and investing. She asked the entire room to rise, and then instructed all but three people to sit down, demonstrating that all-female founding teams in Washington received just 1 percent of venture capital dollars last year.
“I tell you this not to complain or discourage you,” Nelson said. “I tell you because it’s an enormous opportunity and because it’s something that we together can all stand up and work on. Women cannot solve this problem alone; we need everyone on board.”
Nelson left her job in corporate litigation last year to help create a co-working space that doesn’t exclude women from the business world. The Riveter differentiates itself with amenities, programming, and other membership perks geared toward female professionals. For example, you won’t find keggers and foosball tables, but instead mothers rooms and daily yoga classes.
“The old boys club has existed for hundreds of years, and they never let us in,” Nelson said. “But I don’t want to go in there anyway. I want to be in a place where I can be with powerful women doing powerful things.”
Nelson shared four key takeaways from her time as a startup founder that she hopes can help other entrepreneurs — particularly women — turn their ideas into businesses.
- Build what you cannot find, but what you think the world needs. When Nelson toured co-working spaces before launching The Riveter, she didn’t feel like they were places where she belonged. She also noticed that they were all started and run by men. “I thought to myself, if the freelance and gig economy is the future of work, why does it have to look like the past? It doesn’t make any sense,” Nelson said. “I thought the world needed a future of work imagined by women, so I decided I would build it,” Nelson said.
- Confidence, courage, and conviction to believe in the unlikely. When Nelson first began writing the business plan for The Riveter, she thought the company would open one location. A lawyer friend questioned her — why not build 100? “It just hadn’t occurred to me,” Nelson said. She cited a past article noting that “women pitch businesses and men pitch unicorns.” Nelson said part of that is systemic. “We teach boys to be brave, to get in the dirt, to play around,” she said. “We teach little girls to be good, to be kind, to be quiet. What would happen if we taught girls to be brave?”
- Ask for all the help. Whether it’s making an introduction or picking the kids up from school, Nelson said founders shouldn’t be afraid of asking for help. “You are going to also have to reframe your asks as an opportunity,” she advised. “When I asked investors to invest in my company, it wasn’t asking for help or charity. I asked them to participate in an incredible opportunity, to be a part of something big and to work with me and make an incredible return.” Nelson also said that founders should tell everyone what they are building because “you never know who you are talking to.”
- Unbelievable team. You can’t build a great company without a great team. “You have to find people who have incredible passion, hustle, and heart,” Nelson said. “You have to bring them in, challenge after challenge, but also give them agency and ownership.”