Voices: I was a director at The Wing. I made some big mistakes

·7-min read
Audrey Gelman interviews Jennifer Lawrence at New York’s The Wing Soho in 2018 (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for The Wing)
Audrey Gelman interviews Jennifer Lawrence at New York’s The Wing Soho in 2018 (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for The Wing)

The Wing is officially gone, and the artifacts of the girlboss era are fading away into a distant, Chanel-scented memory. For those not familiar with The Wing, it was a co-working space with a mission to advance women through community; in other words, somewhat of an all-female members’ club. The first location opened in October 2016, when liberal New Yorkers were certain that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. When that didn’t happen, The Wing was supposed to be the millennial pink salve that women needed — a space for women, by women, championing women. The timing was perfect to scale the mission.

I was the Director of Community at The Wing from May 2018 to June 2020, and in those two years, I went from beloved manager to loathed leader. How did that happen, and, more importantly, what can the next generation of female leaders learn from it?

In June 2020, we were wrapping up another “firefighting” Zoom meeting. Audrey Gelman had stepped down as CEO. Active employees staged a digital walkout. Former employees started an Instagram account (@flewthecoup) calling out the dark sides of working at The Wing. At the end of the call, my colleague pointedly asked me, “Are you okay?” She mentioned Flew The Coup, and then she disappeared from my screen.

When I checked @flewthecoup’s profile, I saw what she was talking about. They had created a petition. My eyes scanned the page until I spotted my name and froze. “We ask for the removal of Frenchie Ferenczi for her lack of leadership and support of the part-time team, as well as continuously misidentifying the GNO and non-binary staff members across multiple locations,” the petition read. Then, I saw that more than 11,000 people had already signed.

Over the past two years, I’ve started to understand what went wrong.

During my two years at The Wing, my focus shifted from prioritizing my team’s experience and well-being to prioritizing the company’s growth. During my onboarding, the team told me they were overwhelmed by constantly shifting priorities. They detailed the frustration they felt at reporting issues that never got fixed (looking at you, rain leaking in from the SoHo roof.) They spoke about a lack of clarity about their respective roles. I made it my goal to resolve these issues — until I realized that growth metrics trumped culture metrics.

To be blunt, I didn’t join The Wing because of the mission; I joined because of the career opportunity. I wanted to be a part of startup world’s shiny object du jour. Most other team members, however, joined because of the mission. Those people found themselves regularly disappointed that The Wing wasn’t as different to the outside world as they hoped. It was just another VC-backed startup with all the pressure, growth pains and issues typical to VC-backed startups — except it came with a beauty room, cozy blankets, and rainbow bookcases.

The mission was to advance women, but in the thick of growth, that mission got brushed aside. We needed to hire fast, and so we lost sight of following a truly inclusive hiring process. With the pressure to retain our members, accepting their disrespectful and entitled behaviors felt necessary. We often failed to follow up when staff complained about their behavior or their words.

We all had more work than we could handle. As a disciple of the business, I implicitly and explicitly made choices that contributed to the toxic culture of the company. Could I have left? Yes. Did I have the courage to do so? No.

I started to see how for we’d veered away from the original mission, but I didn’t speak up. I pushed harder. I believed I was doing my job. More recent (more ethical) replications of Stanley Milgram’s infamous research into destructive obedience found that 79 percent percent of participants were likely to continue inflicting harm when instructed to, even after they were aware of the harm they were causing. When I asked a team member to go on a month-long work trip after she had a serious brush with burnout, I believed that doing my job (and challenging her to overextend hers) was more important than her wellbeing. I’d always wanted to believe that I was in the 21 percent of people who wouldn’t engage in destructive obedience, yet there I was.

Then 2020 came around.

The pandemic was taking lives and setting women back. Police brutality reached new levels and visibility. This was the front-page news. The economic strain of the pandemic meant that improving internal culture was moved to the back burner (yet again), until what was happening behind the scenes at our company also became front page news.

An ex-employee, Roxanne Fequiere, wrote a piece for ELLE titled “The Wing was my dream job. Working there turned into a nightmare”. The New York Times wrote a feature about us with the headline: “The Wing is a women’s utopia. Unless you work there.” Audrey Gelman, the former CEO, wrote an apology wherein she admitted that The Wing upheld “the kind of social inequality we set out to upend,” before standing down.

We weren’t the only startup to encounter such problems, and we followed the playbook in terms of how we dealt with it: public apologies, defensive explanations, some performative actions that looked great on the surface. There was a lot of talk of “looking inward” and ruminating on social justice. But truthfully, this wasn’t a moment to step away, to look inward, to reflect. This was a moment to pursue anti-racism and anti-sexism with the same ruthless energy that they had brought to monetizing their missions.

Yes, the financial burden of doing so may have been significant — but that is what disruption in action would have looked like. The only way to show a commitment to change is to pay the price for it.

Female CEOs are more likely than men to be fired, and although some men stepped down during this same time period, they did not come under the same scrutiny as their female counterparts. The critical difference is that they didn’t come into the landscape claiming that they would disrupt how corporations operate. They didn’t claim that they were “advancing women through community” (The Wing) or, to take an example from another woman-led startup, “democratizing an industry that has forever been top-down” (Glossier). When the truth shattered the hope these women had fostered, people were disappointed, which led to outrage (as it often does), and public canceling. We should have seen this coming. We should have done more.

After I got laid off from The Wing in June 2020, I decided to start my own business. I was afraid to start drinking the Kool-Aid in another startup, and thought I’d have more control if I began something of my own. Today, I consult with small businesses to help them simplify and get strategic so they can scale sustainably. My clients benefit from the mistakes I’ve made and the errors I’ve seen. Ironically, I have helped advance more women since I left The Wing than when I was there.

When I see the news of Chief’s $100 million Series B round and its unicorn status or read about Bobbie’s mom-friendly work culture, I breathe a sigh of relief that investors haven’t all but given up on women founders. And I am eagerly watching to see if the tides may be turning for women-led companies. For that to happen, their leaders don’t need to be error-proof. They need the wisdom to set the right priorities and the courage to pause and repair when they lose their way. Now, that would be disruptive.

Frenchie Ferenczi is the former Director of Community at The Wing, and is now a Business Growth Strategist for small business owners