Plants, vintage Jet magazines, and a noticeable—yet subtle—decal on the wall that reads “THROW IT IN THE BAG” are the first things you see when walking into Ethel’s Club—the first private social and wellness club dedicated to supporting and celebrating people of color. Not to be compared with any other coworking spaces, Ethel’s Club is unique in design and location and has created an environment that not only looks appealing to the aesthetically inclined eye, but also feels like home to its community. “Our club members treat the space like their homes,” says founder & CEO Naj Austin, jokingly. “Sometimes I find members in the kitchen washing dishes that aren’t theirs or helping tidy up our living room area and I’m constantly telling them they don’t need to.”
Naj originally comes from a professional background in real estate and decided to quit her job last year with a little over $5k in savings and a little bit of faith. With the support of her talented team, helpful investments, and a strong belief that this space was necessary—the double doors to the club opened in November 2019. Only three months in, she’s already talking about expanding their current location by building a studio room for artistic expression and experimental performances—the space will hold a maximum of 250 guests.
The Jersey native always felt connected to her culture and wanted to create something to help nurture her community. Named after her late grandmother, Ethel’s is more than just a place for people to do work—it’s a message that ensures the protection of authentic culture.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced is educating people on how important it is for people of color to have a safe space where they can unburden themselves and heal, create, find peace etc. I learned that a lot of people don’t understand how deep systemic racism runs in this country. I learned that White people don’t understand how people of color navigate the world in a different way, because we’ve been forced to.”
Naj originally took her idea to social media to get as many eyes as possible on her brand. She posted photos of inspiring creators with Ethel’s Club branding and tagged them. Her Instagram eventually gained attention, support from some of her early followers—now members, and a feature in the New York Times, which she described as a “surreal” moment. “I honestly didn’t know what the business would be. I didn’t know what I was doing when I first started,” said Naj. “I still don’t know, but I continue to move forward, think of new ideas, talk to more people, learn more. It’s all a learning process for myself and my team.”
Sitting in the club “living room” on a large and lovely rust couch, we discussed how introverted she is, her most annoying interview questions, and how her interior designer really did their thing with the decor. We also dismantled the lack of diversity in the workspace conglomerate and how necessary this venture was for her. No, the space is not meant for “Blacks and Browns only,” but it was built by Black and Brown people, is operated by Black and Brown people, and is meant to act as a safe and uplifting space, specifically for them. Naj’s team is filled with inspiring individuals of color and the entire company is operated by POCs. “Even my electrician is Black,” said Naj.
“As a member of Ethel’s Club you are directly entering a funnel that gives money and opportunity to other people of color—every touchpoint was influenced, created or sourced by someone who believes in the same credo—for us, by us.”
She even tried to find a large space that was owned by a person of color to house the club and it was a challenge, which is a clear indication why places like this are necessary.
Joining Ethel’s Club doesn’t just grant you a space where you can work. There are two different types of memberships that you can apply for.
Is simultaneously launching all these initiatives difficult? Yes. Entrepreneurship is a wild shift to the paradigm of what normal life is, but Naj has handled this drastic change in her career with grace and encourages other entrepreneurs to understand that everyone's journey is different. “Keep pushing and stay focused. As an entrepreneur, there is always something you could be doing, something you could be working on, but to cross hurdles efficiently and quickly it’s important to keep your eye on the ball. I hate sports analogies, but it’s true.”
Naj is on a mission to create an ecosystem where everyone is able to thrive while making money and having it circulate within POC communities. Her team recently launched a digital marketplace where people can shop for exclusive accessories and garments that are sold in their East Williamsburg office front. All items in the shop are handmade and/or designed by people of color.
Described as a collaborative home for like-minded people, Ethel’s Club offers unique programming and private events, most importantly it hosts a space and community that celebrates you for who you are authentically. Check out Ethel’s Club to learn more and join the community!